Montserrat - Island of the Volcano | Distant Shores Sailing Newsletters

Montserrat - Island of the Volcano

April 17, 2009

Little Bay
Montserrat, British West Indies

Hello Friends,

We are really having fun exploring the less-visited islands of the Caribbean this winter! The British island of Montserrat is a place we missed on our first cruise through the Caribbean when we were here aboard our first boat "Two-Step" in 1992. The island has changed dramatically since then but not because of development or mass tourism. Mother Nature herself has re-shaped the island with an erupting volcano! The Soufriere Hills volcano which had been dormant for centuries erupted in 1995. Nineteen people died and the capital city of Plymouth which was also the main port for the island was destroyed.

Today two-thirds of the island is off-limits and the population has moved to the safety at the north end of Montserrat which lies in the protection of the Centre Hills, a natural barrier. At the time of the 1995 eruption the population was about 11,000 people. Today it is about 5,000 since many Montserratians left to start new lives in other places after losing their homes and businesses. Those who have remained or returned are ever positive and continue to be the friendly welcoming hosts of "the Emerald Isle" of the Caribbean. Yes the Irish heritage is strong here! They stamp your passport with a logo of a shamrock.


Like Saba, the small Dutch island we explored earlier in the month (see the April 4th newsletter), the port in Montserrat is only tenable in calm conditions and with no northerly swell in the forecast. It's a good idea to call the Port Authority on VHF channel 16 before arriving to check on conditions in the small anchorage in Little Bay.

Another thing you have to check before arriving in Montserrat is the activity level of the volcano which continues to burble and spew from time to time. This is off-putting to some visitors but for most others the volcano is the main attraction! The Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) monitors the volcano constantly and collaborates with government authorities to establish exclusion zones and issue safety warnings which you can find on their regularly updated website.

On either side of the island of Montserrat there are exclusion zones out into the sea. At the time we visited we had to stay 4 km off the east side where during periods of strong activity pyroclastic flows can rush down from the top of the volcano and hit the water in 90 seconds! Along the southwest coast we had to sail at least 2 km off the coast. We were permitted to sail close-in along the south coast past Plymouth in the daytime but we couldn't stop or go ashore.


The beach at the former capital city of Plymouth has extended outward into the sea with the fall of ash and volcanic debris so is constantly changing. Treat your charts with scepticism and keep an eye on your depthsounder when travelling close to the coast in this zone! The photo below shows the former pier only half it's original size. The other half is buried in debris and ash which has extended the coastline out into the sea.


It is quite a disturbing yet awe-inspiring sight to see this now barren side of the island with the homes and buildings so buried in ash and volcanic debris.

The port of call at Little Bay at the northwest corner of Montserrat is unfortunately still a bit of an industrial wasteland as they continue to rebuild. A new marina and commercial port is planned but it is a huge and expensive project that will take some time. For $15 US we were cleared in and out for a 3-day visit at the Port Authority Office. The officials don't work evenings or weekends and if you arrive outside of working hours there is an overtime charge of about $35 – another issue that deters sailors from planning a visit here.

Also the port is far from town so you need a taxi to do anything - find a restaurant, do some grocery shopping, or go sight-seeing. We had been warned of this so had contacted the Montserrat Tourist Office who helped organize a driver to meet us when we arrived. (The tourist office website also has a section for visiting yachtsmen with lots of information on checking-in including customs forms.)


Our taxi driver and guide for the next few days was the delightful Jadine (pronounced Jay-deen) Glitzenhirn, Tel. (664) 491-2752. Jadine is a local woman who lost her gift shop in Plymouth in the 1995 eruption as she points out to us here, and is now a taxi driver and tour operator.

Jadine's stories were fascinating and she took us to many viewpoints around Montserrat to see the still steaming volcano as well as to areas now declared safe where we could actually walk around and through some of the homes and buildings destroyed by the volcano.

For those of you who have the Distant Shores Season 5 DVD you will have explored the historic city of Pompeii with us which was destroyed centuries ago when Mount Vesuvius erupted. Well Montserrat and the city of Plymouth felt like a modern-day Pompeii! Watch for our visit to Montserrat in Distant Shores episode #71 coming to air soon in Season 6. (The Season 6 DVD will be released in November 2009.)

We also made a visit to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory where you can see an excellent short film about the recent eruptions, learn about the monitoring processes carried out there as well as get some interesting views of "Madame Soufriere" as Jadine calls the volcano.


Meeting people in the places we visit is a highlight for us and Jadine introduced us to many wonderful locals including Franklyn Hixon pictured above showing Paul how to open a coconut with a machete. Yikes! Watch your fingers! Franklyn is a Montserratian stone mason, sculptor and musician whose Calypso name is "Fire". He had a powerful vision of the destruction of Plymouth before the eruption happened in 1995. He tried to warn everyone of the impending danger and was thrown in jail for disturbing the peace! Later he wrote a song called “Fire on the Mountain” which continues to sell well on CD. Like all the Montserratians we met during our visit Franklyn has the gift for turning the negative into the positive!


In the glory days before the eruption many celebrities owned beautiful villas in Montserrat and many still do today. One such villa is Olveston House belonging to Sir George Martin, the manager of the Beatles and founder of Air Studios. His villa is now open as a guest house for 11 months of the year. In January the Martin family is in residence. For info write to

The seasonal ex-pat community is important to the economy of Montserrat. Villa rental is very affordable and the most popular form of accommodation for visitors coming to Montserrat. We met cruising sailors who bought lovely villas "at sensible prices" after visiting the island on their boats. For info on this they recommend contacting Trade Wind Real Estate and Villa Rental.


Despite the volcanic destruction at the south end of the island, the rest of the island remains lush and the rainforest thrives. There is a well-maintained network of hiking trails which are especially popular with bird watchers and the flowers are beautiful too. You can fly in for a day visit or extended vacation from nearby islands such as Antigua if you don't want to sail here on your own boat. Unfortunately there is no longer a ferry service to Montserrat.

As I mentioned before, there is a strong Irish heritage in Montserrat and the traditional island stew which is called Goat Water is a variation of Irish Stew. On the weekends, islanders cook up huge pots of this delicious stew made of slowly simmered goat meat, cloves, and other Caribbean spices to serve at family gatherings and work parties with friends. Of course we had to try some and it was absolutely delicious!

Water is not a problem on Montserrat. There are many natural springs and legend has it that if you drink from the spring at Runaway Ghaut you are sure to return to Montserrat. We both made sure we did! Our visit to Montserrat just whet our appetite to spend more time in this interesting Caribbean island.

On April 18th we said goodbye and set sail for another small island treasure, Iles des Saintes, just south of Guadeloupe, part of the French Antilles. But more on that next time...

Wishing you fair winds,

Sheryl and Paul Shard
Aboard SV Distant Shores
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