By Gerald Singer
The subtle signs are all about. The seasons are changing. Summer is here.
Orion once again dominates the night sky. The flamboyant flowers are all but gone and the first colorful frangipani caterpillars have begun their annual feast that will render the frangipani tree leafless until next spring when the caterpillars change into giant dark brown moths and the trees blossom with new leaves and beautiful fragrant flowers.
The winds that in summer carry dust blown up by sandstorms over the desserts of Africa, have shifted and the skies are clearer. On good days, you can see St. Croix clearly and sometimes even Culebra, Vieques and El Yunque on Puerto Rico, from a good vantage point on Gifft Hill.
Cold fronts passing over the Continental United States have begun to bring breaking ground seas and a new flock of tourists to the beaches of the North Shore.
The trade winds, unsettled and weak, during the hurricane months of September and October, are piping up again and the hot sultry days of summer are being replaced with the cooling breezes of winter. Gone for the season, are those days when the seas can become flat calm and mirror-like and one can barely discern the distinction between the elements of air and water; days when small craft can venture far from the protection of calm bays and head out to open waters in relative safety and comfort.
Some years ago, after paddling a kayak from Leinster Bay to West End, Tortola on a still windless summer afternoon, I had the good fortune of entering into a conversation with the late Mr. Joseph Romney, who lived at West End and who was approaching his 100th birthday, with a failing body, but a mind as sharp as a tack. A renowned sea captain, Joseph Romney could recount innumerable tales of his own maritime experiences as well as stories illustrating the history and traditions of boat building, shipping, fishing and the lives of seafaring Virgin Islanders. The condition of the sea led us to a story that Mr. Romney had heard from his father about an event that occurred on a flat calm day of summer, more than a century and a half ago.
That day, an enslaved worker on St. John, whose last name was Benjamin, took advantage of the coinciding opportunities presented by a perfectly calm sea and a new law abolishing slavery on the island of Tortola.
While walking by himself on the coast near Brown Bay, Mr. Benjamin noticed one of the large iron cauldrons used to boil cane juice into sugar called a “copper,” lying just off the shoreline and it gave him an idea. Using his machete, he carved a piece of driftwood into a rudimentary paddle and then using the mechanical advantage provided by convenient sturdy boards he found abandoned in the bush, he maneuvered the heavy copper into the water, climbed in and started to paddle across this narrow section of the Sir Francis Drake Channel heading for Tortola and freedom.
Understand that a heavy iron copper with a man inside most certainly lacks the proper freeboard (that part of the boat that rises above the waterline) for a safe crossing in all but the calmest seas. In other words the slightest wave or even the splashing from a paddle stroke could cause water to enter the copper, thus increasing the weight and decreasing the freeboard. To mitigate this problem, Mr. Benjamin used a small calabash to bail out accumulated water from time to time.
After successfully crossing the open channel between St. John and Tortola, Mr. Benjamin paddled between Little Thatch and Frenchman's Cay. As he rounding the western point of Frenchman's Cay, the wind picked up just enough to start sending water into the copper faster than he could bail.
Paddling as fast as the lumbering craft could go, Mr. Benjamin had not quite entered the mouth of Soper's Hole, when the combined weight of the heavy copper, its passenger, and the added water from the waves became heavier than an equal volume of just plain seawater and by the laws of physics, could no longer float on the surface of the sea. The copper sunk to the bottom, and Mr. Benjamin was cast into the sea.
The story had a happy ending. Mr. Benjamin succeeded in swimming the rest of the way into the harbor. Arriving at safely at West End, soaking wet and with nothing more than his abilities and his courage, Mr. Benjamin was able to carve out a free and dignified life for himself on Tortola. The copper, according to Mr. Romney, still lies in shallow water just off of the northeast corner of Frenchman's Cay and, although heavily coral encrusted, can be easily identified by snorkelers or divers who know where to look.