Folk art and daydreams from Bequia

Sailing upwind in the Caribbean

Cruisers merrily claim they “go where the wind blows.” It’s sort of true, but implies a more laissez-faire approach than migration patterns belie. On the day we departed – just as hurricane season is waning – we saw more boats sailing north and away from Grenada with us than we saw during entire stretch from Tortola down to Grenada a few months ago, at hurricane season’s peak. Weather patterns are shifting, and the fleet is on the move!

Provisioning up for our own departure at the bustling Saturday farmer’s market in St George is a treat for the senses. Aromas of spice waft from streetside hawkers with the cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and more grown in Grenada. This lush island produces a wealth of produce; we’ve been here just long enough that I want to see and thank a few particular vendors before sailing away, like the Rastafarian farm stall, where they make perfect selections for me (two avocado ready to eat today please, four more to ripen during the week).  Or smiling vendor of tasty vegetarian roti, dubbed “Blessed Love” in my head for the phrase he warmly repeats. And Jessie, who sells a variety of produce and spices in her stall, and patiently instructs me on how to prepare mauby bark into a tasty beverage…the moment captured by our friend Tony from the Wauquiez 38, Sage.

Grenada market fruitseller
I have a habit of buying more than I can easily carry at the St George’s market

Our destination a few months from now is Panama,but  instead of starting westward Totem has also joined the seasonal migration and sailed north. The primary reason is for Jamie to fly back to Puerto Rico for a follow up with the dermatologist (kids, wear your sunscreen!); Martinique’s busy airport makes this easier. But heading north also allows a stop in Bequia, an island that figured meaningfully in the long-ago dreams Jamie and I had to go cruising…one we passed by on our rush south to run away from the ‘canes.

sailboat arriving in Bequia
Arriving in Bequia: bonus crew, because a day-hop is more fun with a friend

For Jamie, a small boat shaped Bequia dreams: when he worked at the Fort Rachel marina in Mystic, Connecticut, he was given a wooden dory that needed repair. Six feet long, maybe a little more, it was alleged to date from the 19th century and came with a history that included months at sea becalmed in the south Atlantic. Wooden oarlocks, traditional fasteners, chipped layers paint…and the tales of origin from a small Caribbean island where whaling was still practiced, and wooden tenders like this built on the shoreline.

An apron was the unexceptional source of my Caribbean dreams: nearly two decades ago when we had babies instead of teenagers, my mother found an apron proclaiming “BEQUIA” in uneven stitching at the top, appliquéd with designs depicting island life scattered over the cotton cloth. Colorful fabric shapes formed women at work: one pounded grain, another carried a basket on her head. Birds swirled over the silhouettes of the island, and fishermen lured their catch from a small boat. Someday I’d visit this Bequia, and see what Caribbean life was like for myself.

R Williams appliqued apron

As if confirmation that this apron is at least as much folk art as utilitarian, stitched at the bottom hem was the name of the artist: “R Williams.” With Bequia in reach: could I possibly find this person?

Dinghy dock Bequia
Dinghy dock at Bequia

In fact, what seemed an insurmountable task for a short stop (2 nights, fewer days) was manifest into reality shortly after setting foot on the island. A charmed series of referrals spaced in mere minutes lead to two women in the craft bazaar. Turning the lightly soiled apron over in their hands, they murmured over the design before proclaiming “this here is Miz Rita’s work,” and told me how to find her – leaving me speechless. R had a name. Not only that, but Rita Williams lived just a short walk away! Less than an hour from arrival in Bequia I had the gift of thanking Rita Williams, and telling her how much I loved this cotton cloth she’d years ago stitched into a functional work of art, and how it played a part in fueling my dreams to sail away. Sitting at her bedside, Rita shared about her life, about Bequia, about the stories behind those appliqués: men talking while they fish, women cooking whale meat in a coal stove, the effort and celebration of a community when one of the grand mammals is taken.

Rita Williams folk artist
Rita laughed her way through decades of reminiscing!

It opened a whole new world, and put Bequia in a whole new light. I returned the next day with the rest of the family. Rita graciously retold her stories, teaching the intangible truths about her culture, offering the treasure of human connection and sharing we seek in this nomadic life. In one fell swoop she’s one of the unforgettable figures shaping our time in the Caribbean. She’s a window into the past: crafts bazaar now has few locally-made items, featuring instead a lot of generic Caribbean-themed shirts with scenes of rastas and ganga, referencet to rum and pirates, made in another continent and stamped “BEQUIA” (and probably repeated for JAMAICA, ST VINCENT, DOMINICA, and others). Bedridden after having her foot amputated a few years ago, Rita’s no longer sewing.

We skipped a lot of anchorages, passed up a lot of “must-do” experiences. A few cruisers asked why we were moving so fast. For boats that don’t expect to leave the Caribbean, I guess it is a dizzying pace. And while I do wish we had time to explore more of the Grenadines, and I do wish we had the budget for a lobster BBQ on the beach, and I do wish we could have done more of hiking on these inviting ridgelines, we are at peace with how we travel on our terms. There is always more than we can possibly see, but I’m so glad we didn’t miss Rita’s stories.

Sucking down what are possibly the world's best popsicles - tipped off by the SV Party of Five crew. SO GOOD
Sucking down what are possibly the world’s best popsicles – tipped off by the SV Party of Five crew. SO GOOD
Bequia waterfront and dory
Bequia waterfront… and a wooden dory?

28 Responses

  1. Wow, how wonderful that you found her! 🙂

    It’s amazing how people can touch the lives of others and never really know it unless serendipity draws people together years later. That apron is without question better traveled than most people, and meant so much, yet she must have made and sold a countless number over the years without never knowing what happened to them or how much they were loved. So great that you could do it!

  2. Behan, this story touches me more than any other you’ve published, and that’s saying a lot. what a wonderful, incredible thing to have found this woman! What a connection!

  3. Wow! I love this story! The apron is certainly a treasure to behold and you are fortunate to have met the artist. Items like that are now so “generic” with no meaning because they are mass produced. You are blessed that you have an original to hang on to….to remember your connection to this fabulous artist and her beautiful island. Safe travels Behan and family. I’m a long-time follower from Canada.

    1. Thank you Fran for reaching out. I’m so fortunate to have met Rita. At the end of our visit, she said a few times – “I’m so glad you found me alive.” I am so tremendously grateful.

  4. What an amazing story Behan! I can’t believe you actually found Rita and got to meet her after all these years. And to hear all those stories from a first-hand reference is pretty neat too. Those times are long gone, and I am not sure what the future will bring; but it seems like those days are at an end. Be well and best to you and your family.

      1. Loved the fact that you found Rita and heard her stories. That’s the type of experience that makes this life worth it.

  5. Reiterating what others said… my favorite account yet. Can’t imagine how much it meant to Rita to know what that piece meant to you, the dreams it helped to inspire and how far it had traveled. That is a memory she will carry with her for her remaining days…knowing that her work had that kind of impact. Beyond special, my friend.

  6. Possibly for lack of Rita’s apron there would be no Sailing Totem. Am thankful she made it.



  7. Behan, what a wonderful story, and you are so right, it is more the people you meet than the wondrous places you see and visit, that makes our lives so full and special!!! Pam

  8. Stories like these tug at my heart strings so hard! Ms. Rita must have been beyond thrilled to see her handiwork still so loved after all these years, and to hear your story of how it was so inspirational and such a big part of your story!

    We’re not Caribbean bound just yet (Bahamas bound for another season because there’s still so much beauty we haven’t explored there yet!), but do hope to have them chance to meet you and your family someday out there on the great big blue.


    Chris on S/V Radio Waves

  9. Glad you got to taste my favorite Windward island. I love the fact that the main street is a pathway along the beach, occasionally splashed by high tide.

    Lovely story about your friend Rita and her world traveling apron! When I was there I met an English bloke who had bought the schooner Friendship Rose and was running her as a charter business. Still aboard as captain was a guy in his 80’s from Rita’s generation who had built her on the beach at Friendship Bay on the other side of the island. He had great stories to tell about going up the mountain to cut natural knees and ribs, and later when she was the only freight transport to St. Vincent, bringing cows and cars aboard by crane.

    Fair winds,

  10. Your stories are all wonderful, but this one is over-the-top! It doesn’t hurt, either, that you’re such a wonderful story teller! Best to you and the crew on your continued travels. – Linda and Carl, S/V Escape Pod.

  11. Oh my gosh B…the apron story was over the top and my favorite, too! You made me cry…you were supposed to find Rita and I know you made her year and she yours. What a special moment in each of your lives..

  12. As young girls , in the late 70’s, my sister and I were living on Bequia with my family.. We bought bolts of fabric in St. Vincent that Rita turned into fantastic dresses, skirts and pants for us. I still have many of her appliqués- scenes of village life, climbing coconut trees, whaling… Such treasures to remind me of the days of Rita in her cozy shop, her husband Liston in his Boley bar serving up callalou soup- the wonderful times when the boat ran once a day to the “mainland “, before the airport, telephones, even electricity… the good old days. News of Rita makes me smile…

    1. WOW, that’s really amazing! Thank you so much for letting me know. I really wonder about what other work of Rita’s is ‘out there.’ And you’ll be glad to know that Liston is still serving up goodness in the Boley bar – the kitchen was closed during our visit (still kinda shoulder season I guess?) so didn’t try the callaloo soup, that would have been a treat! but he’s looking good.

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