When a volcano erupts in the Grenadines Kia Koropp up-anchors and flees Bequia with her husband and two young children on their 50ft yacht
No circumnavigation is complete without a collection of “one-up” stories to tell. We’ve hiked dormant volcanoes and looked into the fiery pit of active ones during the decade we’ve been cruising. Recounting these unique experiences has been fun to tell. Thanks to La Soufrière in St Vincent, we can now add “running from an erupting volcano” to our collection of tales. This is how we experienced the event while cruising in the Grenadines with our two children Braca (9) and Ayla (7) onboard Atea, our 50ft Ganley cutter rigged sloop.
Caribbean Covid regulations
No longer is cruising the Caribbean defined by a carefree transit through a succession of islands. In 2020 it became all about negotiating the complexities of Covid regulations which require an in-depth understanding of the current policies of each country and result in less movement within the archipelago. The French islands are currently closed to non-French citizens and the large disparity between the cost of PCR tests and the varying quarantine timeframes means you have to do your research before moving on. Having done our research, we settled on spending a chunk of our time in the Grenadines where, after the pain and price of entry, we would be rewarded with a large group of idyllic islands to slowly explore. What we didn’t tally into our list of considerations was the disruption of an active volcano.
St Vincent is the largest and northernmost of the 32 islands that make up the Grenadines, and is unique with its black sand beaches, dense forest and impressive waterfalls. The many attractions on the main island would call us back, but having just spent two weeks in quarantine and £750 on fees to enter, we bolted at the first chance we got. We sailed directly to the neighbouring island of Bequia, a highlight destination of mine 15 years ago for its chilled island vibes, excellent diving and stiff happy hour specials. Covid made an impact, however, and the usual tourist buzz was gone. Lucky us. Rather than having to plonk our anchor at the back of a gridlocked bay, there were only about three dozen boats in Admiralty Bay. We spent the next two weeks playing with the kids on empty beaches, diving undisturbed in secluded sites and sipping rum punches with the small community of other cruisers we were with.
What were we thinking?
Just as we were wrapping up our time in Bequia, the unexpected turned our leisurely island cruise into a fast dash to its furthest reaches. I received a text on Friday morning: “Be careful. She’s about to blow!” At midday on 09 April the first eruption on La Soufrière, St Vincent’s youngest and most dangerous volcano, sent a huge plume of ash up and over the island. Other than reports of a mass evacuation of residents in the north, there were no obvious signs of concern in Bequia at what was unfolding on its nearest neighbour. Shops remained open, restaurants continued service, people milled around the streets with no indication of distress. That air of indifference continued until a large plume of ash became visible around 2pm.
A buzz of excitement gathered as the crowds on the street grew. At 5pm, a second eruption dumped more thick ash into the atmosphere. Only a few boats pulled up anchor and a few tourists packed their bags. The rest of us ignorantly stood by as we waited for events to unfold, then headed to the bar for sunset cocktails. Some things are just too surreal to do anything but carry on as usual.
We had to ask ourselves the following morning, “What were we thinking?” A huge expanding cloud of ash is spreading by the minute from a volcano that has erupted twice, and we didn’t think to get as far away as soon as possible?
Grit in my mouth
The first thing I noticed when we woke in the morning was the grit in my mouth. Then it was the thickness of the air in my lungs. Then it was the fine ash that covered every surface of the boat. The countertops had a fine layer of ash, the bed and settees as well. We walked up on deck and the gravity of our situation sunk in — we were right in the middle of a huge deposit of volcanic ash that had floated up, over, and down on us through the night. We stood on deck taking in the surreal scene that surrounded us. Every inch of the boat was covered in ash, a layer rested on the water, the boats around us were blurred by the haze and the shoreline barely visible.
Kids, being as they are, thought the bizarre landscape around us was magical and they had a blast turning chaos into a game. They popped up on deck with their biohazard defences in place: snorkelling mask protecting their eyes, surgical mask covering their nose and mouth, skin blanketed in robes and buckets of water in hand. We sloshed the deck only to turn the fine powdery surface into a running mess of sludgy mud. It didn’t take us long to give up on cleaning and focus on our escape.
Anchor after anchor were pulled up as a mass exodus of boats started pulling out of the bay. The traffic on the radio was heavy as boats called each other to make impromptu plans. What were the options? How far did the ash spread? Where should they go? Should they motor or would that kill the engine? Should they unfurl the sails or would that damage the sails? It didn’t take long for us to follow suit. As we turned on the GPS the graphics highlighted the gravity of the situation: Triangular icons of yachts doubled up on each other, every single one of them heading due south in an overlapping straight line.
Sailing through the opaque haze was surreal. Islands visible two miles away on the GPS were hidden behind a veil of ash, the shadow of a boat a vague silhouette in front of them. We thought we’d go only as far as we had to go until we reached clear air, but that never happened. The line of boats kept going until cornered in the furthest islands within the group, trapped by Covid restrictions that banned us from freely entering neighbouring countries. Trapped and out of options, everyone spread out between Mayreau, Union or the Tobago Cays. A few cruisers and live-aboard sailors stayed where they were in Bequia, but in the end I don’t think it mattered. The north-easterly wind blew for three days and spread the ash evenly throughout the entire island group.
Shelter in the Tobago Cays
For the dozen of us who sought shelter in the Tobago Cays, the first few days saw little change in the amount of ash being blown down on us. The air was imbued with a fine layer of ash. Everyone permanently wore surgical masks throughout the day and many of us throughout the night; a slight break in the defences and you’d be crunching grit in your teeth and blowing out a clot of dust from your nose. Like a choreographed procession of synchronised deckhands, we would grab a coffee and a bucket and spend the morning scrubbing the fine layer of ash off the deck.
We also kept an eye on the weather, hoping for a break. We got our first indication that conditions were improving when we saw the sun set for the first time in three days. By morning the wind had settled to the east, blowing the ash away from us and bringing the clear air we’d been waiting for.
‘Fun’ say the kids
Soufrière has not settled and continues to erupt, sending clouds of ash into the air and pyroclastic flow down the mountainside, but those south of St. Vincent have remained free of any recurring fallout. I ask my kids what they thought of the experience. One says “fine” and the other says “fun.” When I think back, I recall the grit in my teeth and the eerie haze that blinded my surroundings from view and I think “flexible.”
It is one more event that has forced us to change our route over the past year. In 2020 it was all about ever-changing plans to negotiate the complexities of Covid regulations. In 2021 it has become all about racing from volcanic eruptions and a thunderstorm of ash. I am not sure if we will return to St. Vincent as planned as the damage to the island will take a long time to repair. The only thing I do know for certain, however, is that the next time I see a huge plume of ash rising on the horizon I’m not hanging around sipping rum.