Sea Cat’s Excellent Advice
A boat boy from Dominica helps cruisers leave a good impression with the people of his country. "Sailor Profile" from our July 2012 issue.
Slowly it dawned on me how we cruisers must appear to locals. Out of the blue we turn up, we see the sights, we drink and eat at the usual watering holes—and then we disappear over the horizon. Since that’s what happens, why would a local person see anything beyond a commercial interest in a visiting cruiser? If someone’s going to leave in a day or three, there’s not much time or reason to try to get to know them.
The author and Octavius Lugay, better known as Sea Cat, take a break from far-ranging adventures across the island. Photo: Tom Linskey
And there’s another thing that seems to come between yachties and locals. Before we reached the West Indies, we’d been hearing a recurring refrain about yachtie/local interaction from other cruisers during cocktail hour chit-chats. One cruiser, in her 60s, seemed to sum it up: “When we come ashore, they just stare at us, and they don’t say a word,” she said of island locals. “It’s like they hate us, because we’re tourists, or because we’re white, or because we have money and they don’t. It makes me uncomfortable. I feel threatened.”
I was prepared to pooh-pooh her, except that we’d felt something similar in the islands. We didn’t feel threatened, exactly, but many times we didn’t feel welcome, either. Fortunately, we’d been reading M. Timothy O’Keefe’s trekking guide, Caribbean Hiking, which explained that West Indian reticence is often interpreted as unfriendliness: “One of the greatest cultural misunderstandings between tourists and locals is who should speak to whom first. Locals like to be spoken to, and islanders expect visitors to be the ones to initiate a conversation, or even to say a passing ‘Hello.’” This seemed a simple key to better cruiser/local relations: break the ice by acknowledging them first. After all, what human doesn’t want to be acknowledged?
We tried this first on the island of Nevis, before we reached Dominica. While rowing our tender to the wharf, Harriet and I saw the usual assortment of locals—fishermen and taxi drivers, the ladies from the concession stand, a few rough-looking young men with Bob Marley T-shirts and wicked-looking dreadlocks—splayed around a picnic table we’d have to walk right by to reach the street. The group stared at us as we tied up to the dock. They stared at us as we unloaded our carry-alls and slipped into our backpacks. They kept staring at us as we walked 200 feet down the pier toward them. Finally, when we were 20 feet away, we smiled and called out, “Good morning, everybody!”
The reaction was electric. “Morning, morning!” “O.K.!!” “Yah, mon!” “Good day to you!” “Welcome to Nevis!” Everyone in the group, even the assumed-to-be-surly young guys, wore a smile. We’d just triggered our first West Indian shout-out, and it would turn out to be the first of many. We were still sailors, still tourists, still only visitors to their island. But now we weren’t strangers.
We wound up staying for 11 weeks on Dominica—far, far longer than we’ve remained in any spot in our 20 years of cruising. Welcomed and encouraged by Jerry Coipel, the principal of Newtown Primary, and Solange Payne, the French teacher, we tackled various jobs. With help from the Roseau chapter of the Lions Club, we retrieved our shipment from customs. We bought lumber and glue and, with help from other cruisers, built and painted a dozen bookshelves. Harriet read books to students and taught classes as a substitute teacher.
I spent so many days crisscrossing Roseau searching for wall brackets, paint rollers, and drywall screws that I eventually knew not only the local merchants but also the town’s collection of wandering souls, from the barefoot, homeless man who looked like Jesus to the old Rastafarian with a cane. And they knew me. We said, “Morning, morning!” or “Good afternoon.” We passed each other with a nod and a smile.
Meanwhile, Harriet was networking, talking to people and uncovering new projects for Hands: a 650-student primary school that needed a playground and “books for boys”; a literacy center for teachers that needed support; a kindergarten that needed just about everything. Her circle was growing—not only growing, but encircling us.