TALES FROM THE CAP­TAIN’S TA­BLE

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Capt. Lou Boudreau, who grew up in St. Lu­cia, re­counts a child­hood ad­ven­ture sail­ing his 25-foot sloop 19 miles out to “haunted” Di­a­mond Rock.

Grow­ing up in Marigot Bay, St. Lu­cia, dur­ing the 1960s was an ad­ven­ture. A few youngsters lived in the vil­lage over­look­ing the bay, and we be­friended them. Lewis Dalawas was my age, and he loved to fish and ex­plore as much as I did. He of­ten sailed with my broth­ers and me on Peggy, the 25- foot wooden sloop my fa­ther gave us one Christ­mas.

She was red- hulled, with a sim­ple gaffrigged main and one jib. A small, ob­long cock­pit seated four, and a slid­ing hatch led to the cabin. Peggy was Spar­tan be­low deck — just the hull frames and a bench to port and star­board. None­the­less, she sailed very well, and we thought her the best.

Had my par­ents known where some of our voy­ages took us, they might have keeled over. We fre­quently made overnight trips to the bays and coves along the coast and usu­ally held firm to the des­ti­na­tions our fa­ther had plot­ted for us. One sum­mer’s day when I was 14, we planned an overnight voy­age to Pi­geon Is­land at the north end of St. Lu­cia. With my brother Peter as mate and Lewis as deck­hand, we stocked Peggy with a con­tainer of fried chicken, bread and wa­ter, and set off on yet an­other ex­ploit.

It was a fine day; a blue trade-wind sky hung over­head, filled with puffy white clouds. The east­erly breeze tossed spray over the bow as we laid a course north­ward from Marigot Bay. Our lit­tle sloop danced mer­rily over the waves, dip­ping her lee rail oc­ca­sion­ally. Be­fore we knew it, we were miles off­shore and well past the point that Dad had in­structed was a safe limit. As I looked to the north, the is­land of Mar­tinique and Di­a­mond Rock sud­denly seemed very close.

“Pete,” I said ex­cit­edly, “let’s go to Di­a­mond Rock.” My brother looked at me with uncer­tainty. The Rock was some 19 miles from St. Lu­cia and most def­i­nitely was out of our bounds. “Do you think it’ll be OK?” he asked, although the tone of his voice told me he al­ready knew the an­swer.

“Yes man, come on, we’ll be there real quick to­day,” I said.

I was sur­prised when he agreed. Usu­ally I was the only one tagged for hatch­ing schemes, and be­ing the old­est I usu­ally got in trou­ble for “know­ing bet­ter.” Lewis, on the other hand, had no qualms about voic­ing his uncer­tainty. His su­per­sti­tions about the open sea ran deep.

“De deeper de wata, de more dan­ger­ous it is,” he said.

“That’s not true,” I said. “The depth has noth­ing to do with it.”

“That’s what you think,” he an­swered. “In de deep have sea devils. Plenty peo­ple dis­ap­pear al­ready. Look, you re­mem­ber Una, de fish­er­man? He went fishin’ in de deep last year, and he never come back.”

Pete and I out­voted him, and in any case, he was out­ranked.

We closed the dis­tance rapidly, and be­fore long, Di­a­mond Rock was closer to us than the big French is­land. The for­mi­da­ble ci­tadel rose pre­cip­i­tously from the sea, grow­ing in size as our lit­tle ship ap­proached. Stone cliffs dot­ted with black-mouthed caves ap­peared, and jagged precipices over­hung the sea. Sud­denly I felt a sting­ing sense of uncer­tainty. Pete and I had seen Di­a­mond Rock from the deck of our fa­ther’s schooner many times, but now it was dif­fer­ent. Alone, our con­fi­dence waned.

Mas­sive rocks as­cended from the dark blue depths to only a few feet be­low the sur­face, reach­ing to­ward our keel. “That’s a big rock, man,” Pete said with a deep ex­hale.

“Yeah. Let’s go and ex­plore it,” I sug­gested with false bravado. “You know, this is where all those sol­diers died. Right up there.”

Lewis didn’t let that go by. “You crazy man? You mean it have dead peo­ple deah?”

I con­vinced him they were, in­deed, dead and had been for quite some time. Although I’d failed to quell my own se­cret fears, I man­aged to quell his. My fa­ther had told us the tragic tale of Di­a­mond Rock:

Years ago, when the Bri­tish and French were fight­ing over the is­lands, a ter­ri­ble thing hap­pened here. The main port for French war­ships mak­ing land­fall in Mar­tinique is just around the cor­ner in Fort-de-France. The Bri­tish ad­mi­rals thought that if they could keep the French ships from sail­ing close along the shore, as they ap­proached from the east they would have to stand off­shore, end­ing up far to the lee­ward of Fort-deFrance. The great fri­gates were square-rigged and didn’t sail into the wind very well. They could lose days tack­ing back up into Fort-de-France.

The Bri­tish de­cided to put can­nons on Di­a­mond Rock to keep the French war­ships off­shore. It was one of his­tory’s great feats of sea­man­ship and engi­neer­ing. The Bri­tish sailed one of their fri­gates up to the rock, moored her there and hoisted the heavy can­nons to the top. They built a rain catch­ment with cis­tern and for­ti­fi­ca­tions, and quar­ters for the men to live. When it was all done the Bri­tish put a gar­ri­son of their sol­diers ashore and called the fort HMS Di­a­mond Rock.

At first the plan worked well; when­ever a French ship tried to sail in un­der the coast to­ward the har­bor of Fort-de-France, it was driven off­shore by the Bri­tish guns. But the Bri­tish suc­cess was short-lived. The French had been busy, too, and they brought big­ger guns to bear from the hills of Mar­tinique, pre­vent­ing the Bri­tish fri­gates from sup­ply­ing their sol­diers on Di­a­mond Rock.

Time passed, and drought pre­vailed. Food was scarce on the rock, and the fair-skinned Brits suf­fered ter­ri­bly in the heat. They slowly suc­cumbed to thirst and star­va­tion, yet the Union Jack con­tin­ued to wave from the heights of the rock.

The Bri­tish still call it HMS Di­a­mond Rock, and to this day when Her Majesty’s war­ships pass by, they dip their flag in a salute to the men who per­ished there.

As I thought about my fa­ther’s story, Pete came up with a plan to moor Peggy, sug­gest­ing we drop an­chor and take a line ashore at the base of the rock.

“We all go dead, you know dat?” Lewis said, again voic­ing grave doubts about the wis­dom of this es­capade. “Why you have to come to dis place? Ev­ery­body know dat it have very bad spir­its.”

“Don’t worry, Lewis,” Pete piped in. “It’ll be good fun.”

We dropped the jib and sailed our sloop to a point in the calmest lee of HMS Di­a­mond Rock. Pete dropped the main, and Lewis pitched the lit­tle Dan­forth an­chor over­board. As we furled the sails, the eerie si­lence was al­most haunt­ing. The im­men­sity of the rock, if not our tryst, now fully dawned upon me.

The perks of rank have their ben­e­fits, and it fell to Lewis, as the low­est-rank­ing crewmem­ber, to swim ashore with the stern line. “Boy, you crazy. Ah ain’ goin’ in dis wata. Look down dey, it blue, blue, blue.”

Af­ter a few mo­ments, Lewis gave a big snort and dove in. He swam ashore and climbed onto a small stone ledge at the wa­ter’s edge. It looked as though it had been carved in the rock on pur­pose, per­haps for use as a land­ing point. Lewis tied the line around an out­crop of stone, and we hauled our stern in close.

Pete and I went ashore, as well, but no amount of talk­ing would keep Lewis on the rock. He scram­bled back aboard

Peggy the first chance he got and po­si­tioned him­self firmly in the hatch­way, where he nib­bled on a chicken drum­stick, watch­ing us from a safe dis­tance. If he was about to die at the hands of some sort of devil on the rock, he wasn’t go­ing with­out eat­ing some of Ma Boudreau’s chicken.

The sun was hot as Pete and I as­cended the stone-strewn path that climbed drunk­enly up­ward. The rock was bar­ren, with only a few prickly cac­tus plants and dry sandy earth. It was ob­vi­ous that lit­tle rain fell here. A few lizards scur­ried out of our way, and a mul­ti­tude of seabirds fol­lowed us. They screeched and dove over our heads as if telling us to leave, that we had no right to put

our feet on this, their place of brav­ery and suf­fer­ing long past. Pete shouted first. “Hey Lou, come and see this!”

He was bend­ing over a bush on the side of the path. I stooped be­side him, and we brushed away the dry sand from a long piece of rusted metal. “It’s a gun, man!” he shouted, pick­ing up the bar­rel of an old mus­ket.

As he shook away the years of sand, I mar­veled that his trea­sure was be­ing held in the hands of a liv­ing be­ing for the first time in more than a cen­tury. I tried to imag­ine who had been the last and how he had died. Hold­ing it out as if to fire it, Pete sighted along the bar­rel. The wood had long since gone, but at that mo­ment it was real enough to us.

We found many trea­sures that day. Brass sword hilts with heav­ily rusted steel blades, and pis­tol bar­rels with the flint­lock fir­ing mech­a­nisms. There were white leather straps from uni­forms pre­served by the dry sand and hot sun. We col­lected dozens of mus­ket balls and a few can­non­balls. There were scores of these, but be­cause of their weight we could not carry many. I found brass but­tons from of­fi­cers’ tu­nics and a long­stemmed white clay pipe.

I felt a strange sen­sa­tion as I stood there in the ram­parts of HMS Di­a­mond Rock, with a rusty pis­tol in one hand and the rem­nants of a sword. There were, in­deed, ghosts here. The story of the place echoed in my ears, and as I closed my eyes, I could hear my fa­ther’s voice: They all died, you know. There was no way to help them or get wa­ter to them.

I saw the sol­diers in their red tu­nics with white straps stand­ing in the sun. They stood bravely, fac­ing the north to­ward Mar­tinique, their mus­kets lev­eled. Peter shook me out of my day­dream. “Look down there, Lou.” From where we stood, our sloop looked like a tiny red dot on the wa­ter next to the base of the cliff. The sun was halfway down the sky, and Lewis was wav­ing from the safety of the hatch. It was time to go. We scam­pered down the rocky path­way to the land­ing. Lewis met us there and was wor­ried about the things we had brought down from the heights.

“I tellin’ you, Lou, dem tings is dead peo­ple tings, an’ you should trow dem in de sea.”

“No man, these are neat. Look here,” I said, bran­dish­ing a sword hilt. Lewis cow­ered as if he had seen a ghost.

We cast off and set the main be­fore get­ting the an­chor up. It wasn’t long be­fore we were on our way, Peggy heel­ing to the east­erly breeze, bound for the peaks of Pi­geon Is­land, which we could see some 20 miles dis­tant.

Much dur­ing the day had been new to us, and an­other new ex­pe­ri­ence was soon to come. Although we had done a lot of sail­ing, we al­ways planned to be an­chored at night. As the last rays of light died to the west, we felt very alone on the great­ness of the sea. It would be dark soon, and we were far from land. Peggy had no com­pass or lights, and Lewis had eaten all the chicken. Pete and I sat in the cock­pit and ate bread, washed down with wa­ter from the plas­tic con­tainer; it tasted sur­pris­ingly good.

Pete steered, and as the com­plete­ness of trop­i­cal dark­ness fell upon us, the stars came out in their mil­lions, dot­ting the sky in an im­pos­si­ble ar­ray of splen­dor. We soon saw the glow of Cas­tries, the cap­i­tal of St. Lu­cia, and steered our course ac­cord­ingly.

Pete and I talked through the night, with the stars as our guide. We talked about the fish, the birds and the sea. We won­dered about the mas­sif, which had dis­ap­peared in the dark­ness astern of us so many hours past. The men, the liv­ing and the dy­ing. As we talked, we held the old bits of sword and pis­tol in our hands. The trade winds blew gen­tly, and two young boys spoke of great things.

We an­chored Peggy at Pi­geon Is­land as the sun rose. The wind had turned light dur­ing the night, and our lit­tle sloop had glided slowly across the Mar­tinique chan­nel. We slept the day, ex­cept for Lewis, who had slept the night. He had been ter­ri­fied of sea spir­its and would not come on deck. The only sign of his pres­ence had been the oc­ca­sional noise com­ing from the cabin as his body dealt with the con­se­quences of eat­ing more than a dozen pieces of chicken.

We said we had found the ar­ti­facts on the other side of Pi­geon Is­land. Our fa­ther and mother ac­cepted this, but not with­out some doubt.

The temp­ta­tion of sail­ing to Di­a­mond Rock in a small boat was too great to re­sist for three young boys.

St. Lu­cia’s Marigot Bay was the author’s home base for ad­ven­ture.

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