This week, completely by accident, I came across a book by Dennis Puleston, a man who, on a sailing voyage that began in England and lasted six years, happened to spend quite a bit of time here in the Virgin Islands. According to Blue Water Vagabond, first published in 1939, island life back then was idyllic.
“It is an isle serene, forgotten and undisturbed by the restless world outside,” he wrote about Tortola, continuing, “no noise of cars startles its one drowsy street, no cablegrams send shudders through its noontide rest… We fell in love with the Virgins from the first.”
He describes inviting Dr. Wailing, who was acting commissioner of the territory then, onto his boat, only to later receive an invitation to come stay ashore in Dr. Wailing’s house after the kind doctor was appalled at the boat’s stink (Puleston and his sailing companion had a dead rat somewhere on their boat).
Once settled, they lived as I imagine many did here in those days: “We bought a fishpot and kept ourselves in fish. Sometimes we went out with a torch on the reefs at night to spear crawfish. We rambled over the mountains and swam in the sandy bays.”
He describes visits to The Baths, to Fallen Jerusalem, and Norman Island, and, one trip he’d looked forward to for some time, to meet the people of Anegada, whom he had read “make their living by fishing and wrecking.”
After describing his first impression of the island, he writes that “the men who can make a living in such an unfruitful place must needs be a resolute and hardy folk… They are bold sailors and energetic fishermen.”
Puleston’s ship the Uldra was also an early charter yacht. A pair of American tourists had tried first in Puerto Rico, then in St Thomas to hire a sailboat for an island cruise, but had struck out. Someone on St Thomas remembered Puleston’s recent visit, however, and suggested the pair look for him on Tortola.
“So the Americans had jumped aboard the first sloop Tortola-bound, and here they were,” Puleston wrote, going on to describe that the tourists hired Puleston and his companion. The cost: all the running expenses of the trip.
The foursome wound up “vagabonding down the islands” for several months, and Puleston includes mentions of all the ports they stopped in – I shouldn’t be surprised that a foursome of young single men basically hung out on the islands that had the prettiest women, right?
What touched me the most about what I read was how Puleston and his friend felt after dropping off the American tourists in St Thomas and were heading back to Tortola, which I very much related to after just a year or so here.
“Seems like being at home again, doesn’t it?” the friend asked, and Puleston felt he was right.
“In spite of all the other islands I had seen, I was glad to be back. I loved Tortola more than ever.”
This column appeared in the Aug. 23 edition of the Limin Times.