We made it to fabulous Montserrat just in time so see the volcano blow! We had a nice sail from Guadeloupe, winds were 15-20 on our beam the whole way. We arrived in Little Bay, Montserrat at 2:00 in the afternoon and found that we were the only boat in the harbor. At first we were a bit nervous, feeling that maybe we didn’t get the message that this place was not safe. On the way, we sailed four miles off of the mighty Soufriere volcano and witnessed it smoldering from our sea vantage point. However, we anchored safely off of the extreme north end of the island, upwind from the steaming giant Soufriere.
On Monday, we took a tour around the island with Joe Phillips. Joe is a local who has lived here all of his life, including during the 1995, 1997, and 2007 major eruptions. He provided an excellent overview of all of the major events and took us to places that left us speechless. The volcano itself is awe-inspiring and the destruction it has left in its wake is unfathomable unless you see it with your own eyes.
In 1995 the Soufriere Volcano (previously asleep for over 400 years) erupted. Entire towns were covered in thick ash. Eruptions and pyroclastic flows continued in 1996-1997, destroying entire towns and its capital Plymouth on the southern end of the island. The volcano has continued to be active for the past 13 years and only one week ago witnessed another significant collapse of the volcano dome and more major activity. There is a hazard zone set up to keep people away from dangerous areas. Since the initial eruption in 1995, Montserrat has gone from a population of 11,000 to less than 4,000 as many have fled the island after losing their homes and jobs.
We stopped at the old A.I. R. recording studio where stars like the Police, Elton John, the Stones, Paul MaCartney, Stevie Wonder and Duran Duran recorded their hit songs. Jimmy Buffett even recorded his Volcano song here! It was first destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 then finished off by the volcano in the 1990’s. Even though abandoned now, we walked through the studios and saw where much musical magic was made.
Joe took us to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory for an overview on the science of Soufriere. While leaving the Observatory, we could actually hear the volcano rumbling in the distance- quite spooky. He also took us to an amazing lookout point, Gibralti Hill, where we got a firsthand view of the volcano smoking and spewing ash. While we were there, we actually witnessed an eruption and the subsequent pyroclastic flow down the mountain. It was really something to see. Within seconds the entire sky was covered in smoke and ash, completely obliterating any view of the volcano or island. After the eruption, we drove down the now-compacted lava path to the sea. Along the way we saw entire homes buried in sand, mud and ash. Huge rocks were sprawled everywhere resting in the exact places they landed after tumbling down the volcano. At the edge of the sea, we saw a poor sailboat trying to outrun the impending ash cloud from the unexpected eruption. It was quite a sight.
Montserrat is a fascinating place. You can truly witness the majesty and power of Mother Nature. The Montserratians are very friendly and resilient people. We are not sure how the cope with this on a daily basis. After both witnessing Hurricane Katrina and living through its aftermath, we thought we had seen it all in terms of destruction and heartache. But this is like living through Katrina for 13 years. Everyday there are reminders of what was loss and uncertainty about what lies ahead. But, the island is worth fighting for- it is beautiful beyond words and hopefully Soufriere will soon go into dormancy for another 400 years.