- 2 -
"In Karma Waters"
To Mary - guru, wife and friend - and to those who may read now but may never know quite what it was like then.
From the JAHO Journal, log-book extracts, letters and memory before it fades.
This is the story of a voyage, one episode of which started from the island of Mahé, largest of the Seychelles group lying in the Indian Ocean, on Monday 18th October 1982 and ended at Basseterre, capital and port of the island of St Kitts in the West Indies on Tuesday 17th May 1983. The pattern of events great and small leading up to it and their subsequent inter-weaving are all part of what was once referred to as 'life's richly woven tapestry'.
The islands comprising 'The Seychelles' so styled - a recently declared Republic - lie scattered as small gems on the vast expanses of Indian Ocean, anomalous as to both their geological origins and socio-historic development. Formerly a British Colony, they had before that been settled by the French out of Mauritius during the 18th century - The archipelago consists of a group of ninety-two very small islands and atolls just south of the Equator having a total land area of a mere 171 square miles yet covering 150,000 oceanic square miles, stretching for over 700 miles north to south and coming to within a couple of day's sailing of the northern part of that great and sinisterly mysterious island
of Madagascar which is the largest insular feature seen on the map of the Indian Ocean, in the south. The three main islands are correspondingly each about the same sizes as St Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla in the Lesser Antilles archipelago between the Western Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea and have as well about the same overall population as that 'Trinity of Islands' as they were termed in the early Associated Statehood days towards the end of the British Colonial era in the Eastern Caribbean.
Mahé (pronounced Marhay), Seychelles' main island is almost solid granite, rising steeply to heights comparable with those of the 3000 to 4000 foot volcanic peaks above the gentler slopes of St Kitts, lying a thousand miles off the Kenyan Coast of East Africa, and fifteen hundred miles from Bombay on the Indian Sub-Continent.
The geological anomaly refers to the fact that 42 of the Seychelles group, which are the larger and central islands are of continental granite, this despite their position in mid-ocean, and are not coralline or volcanic as are all true oceanic islands. The remaining 50 islands and atolls are coralline and all 92 islands rise from a fairly shallow continental shelf. Included amongst the atolls and 700 miles from Mahé is Aldabra, second largest atoll in the world and largest in the Indian Ocean.
Now the flight from Heathrow went south and east, out over Turkey and the Middle-East to Bahrain; then south over the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean and down into the Southern Hemisphere. About 15 hours' flying, and 4 hours ahead of London in 'time'.
'JAHO', a 30ft 'Tahiti Ketch', had been built in Durban on the Coast of Natal Province South Africa in 1936. In Mahé October 1982, she was 2000 miles from her 'home port' and in the middle of the Indian Ocean. By calculation, the voyage to St Kitts would take at least 90 days (and nights) at sea.
We sailed from Seychelles in the second half of October 1982 and the first leg, those 2000 miles to Southern Africa, lasted 35 days, much of it battling adverse winds.
Our first Landfall was at Richards Bay, about 100 miles north of Durban, where we undertook some essential repairs over the course of a week, and then continued south. Though the proverb states that 'Time and tide wait for no man', he must await the right weather to sail between Durban and Capetown 1000 miles around the southern capes of Africa. So doing, Christmas 1982 and the New Year came and went in Natal Province; named by Vasco da Gama when he sailed, the first European, to that coast of Southern Africa on Christmas Day, in the year of our Lord 1497.
It was after further renovations and replenishments for the old sea-horse 'JAHO' in Durban, that the next leg of the voyage began in January 1983, leaving early one Sunday morning, on the day that the Sunday Papers carried an article about the Seychelles' Affair and our voyage.
Passage from Durban to Capetown was long and with many memorable incidents. The weather is predictably inclement in this region and though there are some Ports of Call they are far apart. We made stops at these and eventually arrived in Capetown, an attractive city cradled by the majesty of Table Mountain and place of the world's first heart transplant operation. With the Capes of Southern Africa behind us, all that lay ahead until landfall in St Kitts was 6000 miles of Atlantic Ocean (South and North) with only the tiny island of St Helena, 1800 miles out from Capetown on the way.
Ascension Island is about 800 miles beyond that, and on a more Northerly course than I planned to take.
St Helena, about the size of Nevis, was first used by the Dutch as a staging post during the days of the Dutch East India Trading Company in the 16th century. Later the British used it as a inescapable exile for Napoleon Bonaparte who ended his days there banished from Europe and in the company of some of his former Generals. Many years later they again sent prisoners there during the South African Boer Wars at the start of this century. We made St Helena in time to spend Easter and refill our water tanks for the remaining 4000 miles to St Kitts.
Leaving St Helena, my main concern was to avoid the windless region of the Doldrums which we would encounter if we headed north too soon. Should this occur, we could be becalmed, perhaps for weeks as, our engine being out of commission by this time with a fractured drive shaft, sail was our only means of progress. Recollections of 'The Ancient Mariner' came clearly at that time; then, when a gigantic whale cruised by one afternoon heading back towards St Helena and during a moonless night we were surrounded by
a group of three more, at least one of which was bigger than 'JAHO', how well the tale of Jonah came to mind.
Days and nights came and went in endless procession. Only daily position plots on the chart gradually shortened the distance visually, for the water looked the same mile after mile by the thousand. Until, at one stage being about 500 miles out from the mouth of the Amazon River, the oceanic deep blue became muddied by that great effluent. Two days later it was sapphire blue once more. Other than this, only weather variations - now fair, now foul - brought any real changes in the ocean-scape; the little ship held up through many adversities, but we, Skipper and the one-man crew, Kenyan by birth, Seychellois by parentage and Calix by
name, were yet to encounter our toughest test of all.
One evening at dusk with very little wind to give us way, we were all-but run down by a freight ship which appeared not to see us until we were able to hail the crew seen at leisure on the after deck passing as they did menacingly close by our stern. It was only then, after near disaster, that I was able to contact them over the VHF Radio. They readily consented to relay a radio message through Barbados to St Kitts giving our news and anticipated date of arrival - always D.V.
The 'test' came one night as Calix and I were changing watch. He had been becoming noticeably more morose and brooding for several days, which I had attributed to his having run out of whatever it was that he had been smoking during his night watches, but he had also been upset by the SA newspaper article which he thought would jeopardise his safety on returning to Seychelles, for he, although I had tried to reassure him that it was not the case and that I would do whatever he felt was necessary to ensure it, not being able to read the text of the article, except for the
bold headline which read 'Shoot Me' surmounting a photograph of the two of us aboard 'JAHO', felt, poor chap, that this would be open invitation to his summary execution upon landing back home.
His brainstorm broke suddenly. He had had enough and wanted only, in blind raging despair, to destroy the ship and end both this voyage and life itself for the two of us so as to, in his words, 'equalise everything', by smashing out the bottom planking with the heavy sledgehammer from the tool-chest, he gripped and raised high over one inch of bared pine-wood and miles above the ocean floor.
In the terrible battle, of wills rather than physical engagement, that ensued, right once more prevailed, but that close bond had been broken. Had it ever been there? Was it ever thus; Haves and have nots; Black and white; Must it ever be so? Trust or mistrust; From that moment on, Ship's Master watched cat-like against any resurgence of the fury of the Ship's Crew.
First sighting of the West Indies was the south-east coast of Antigua at dawn on the 16th May 1983. Some nineteen hours later we dropped anchor near the old Treasury Pier in Basseterre Roads St Kitts. Nine thousand miles, 104 days and nights at sea, seven months from Seychelles. The voyage was over but the story continued.
Calix left by air, going first to Mombasa in Kenya were he had grown up and later returning safely to Seychelles. The 'Skipper' became once more the 'Doc' in a St Kitts shortly to become an Independent Federation with her sister island of Nevis where a period of working at the Alexandra Hospital followed, before coming full circle back to work at the JNFGH in May 1984.
There was no 'Hurricane Alert' later that same year in November.
Spawned in the Caribbean, rather than the Atlantic near the coast of Africa, Hurricane 'Klaus' smashed unheralded through these and neighbouring islands taking an enormous toll in small craft. 'JAHO' was totally destroyed on the rocks below 'The Lighthouse' in her last and darkest hours.
Her finest hours had been during another wild night - In February of 1983 during our passage 'reaching' across the treacherous mouth of South Africa's False Bay, with a South-Easterly gale 'abaft the beam', between two Lighthouses, that of Cape Hangklip and the Cape of Good Hope Light, 'JAHO' straining with every fibre of her being the very limits of her capabilities, harmonising those of her two confederates, one black one white, breaking her bonds with the Old World, heading for the New. Her fastest night of sailing in all her close on 50 years I'll warrant.
The year, 1988, marked the 500th anniversary of the first passage around those Capes by a European, the Portuguese Mariner Bartholomew Diaz, sailing from West to East seeking the sea route to India from Europe. Four years later Columbus sailed West with the same intention in faith that he would succeed. The 'West Indies' stand testimony to that intent, in deed if not in fact.
By 1984 time and the elements had taken their toll on the fabric of the 'Institution'. More subtle were changes in the personnel and gradually the intervening years seemed to shrink in memory as more time passed by. Nature's way with passing years - was it ever thus?
The 'Doc' who returned was not the 'Doc' who went away, and neither was the same who came in '73. In 1984 the Sailor yearned to save his ship; the Surgeon remained, time and responsibility committed, ashore. All were and are the same, as are we all. Ship-wrecked, survivors.
The Surgical work-load had been made somewhat easier by the second operating theatre started before I left in 1979, and for a period 1984-85 having a capable Resident in Surgery to double-up on the case load on operating days was a boon. At that time there was no 'surgical waiting-list'. This unfortunately was no longer the case once Dr. Warner left. The theatre staff and ward nurses work hard and enthusiastically despite our shortages and shortcomings.
There were more Traffic Accidents than before, and also injuries from tourist 'trips' into the Rain-Forest up to the Crater as tourism and Adventure Holidays became more popular, and development proceeded within the Federation.
JNFGH became a recognised part of the 'Ross University School of Medicine', and it would have been pleasing to see some input from that quarter as time passed, but eventually this association passed away as have so many promising starts in these small havens in the oceanic vastness. There remain still the perennial chronic leg ulcers, while Diabetes, Hypertension and 'water-works' still account for much of the day to day surgical load.
In 1979 I was able to arrange a visit by Dr. W.J McDonald from Montana USA for a month of elective Orthopaedic Surgery. He came back again in 1985, and each year subsequently for a decade or more in Jan-Feb. Like Father Christmas, a month late, he came from the 'frozen north' laden with Surgical goodies which greatly helped the service. In addition to this and a good rapport with all, he continued to provide a valuable addition to it in his operative work. Having established on-going orthopaedic visits, he eventually did not have to work so hard himself.
It rained a lot in 1987; the roof leaked, and of course we all got wet, so they fixed the roof.
The construction and staffing of the Psychiatric Unit had been of major importance in those years, and then there were several doctors assigned to work on the Medical Ward. Three Gynaecologists shared the work-load in their special field. The establishment of a Night Emergency Doctor rota provided the public with improved facilities. However, the general Surgical service still remained under-staffed for several more years until the appointment of a second surgeon to the hospital in 1993. Recently Kittitians lost a fine old friend when 'Bill' McDonald passed away in 1999.
Life, it had been said, proceeds in periods of 5 years'. This review has spanned three such cycles, each very different, from the writer's viewpoint. One well wondered what each of the subsequent '5 year cycles' would bring.
A West African (Ibo) proverb enjoins us 'Remember, when it rains, not all the rain falls on one roof.'
But for now here in St. Kitts, "it ain' rainin so we ain' gettin wet"..................
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