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A Turbulent Trip To Paradise

Palm Island got its name after John and Mary Caldwell planted hundreds of coconut palms, transforming the swampy land into a paradise.

Palm Island got its name after John and Mary Caldwell planted hundreds of coconut palms, transforming the swampy land into a paradise.

All of the recent hurricane coverage showing devastated islands, demolished houses, overturned cars and boats tossed ashore as if they were toys can’t help but make me think about some of the vessels famously lost to hurricanes. The windjammer Fantome, the Bounty, the cargo ship El Faro and a replica of Christopher Columbus’ Niña come to mind.


The stories behind these ships remind me of a woman in the bookstore who one day asked me, “Why are all these sailing books about disasters?” I thought about it for a minute and said, “Well, they’re interesting! A book would be pretty dull if it started out, ‘The chablis was perfectly chilled as we watched the sun set over our bow,’ wouldn’t it?” So, I suggested to her a disaster book of a different kind: Desperate Voyage by John Caldwell. Caldwell was known in the Caribbean — and the Grenadines particularly — as “Johnny Coconut.”

I won’t spoil the whole book, but inside Desperate Voyage are stories of love, a dismasting, a hurricane, a rescue and a reunion. After surviving an ill-fated trip to meet up with Mary, his war bride, the couple create a one-of-a-kind paradise on Palm Island in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Here they also raised a family. 


The island was a fabulous "barefoot" resort for both yachties and guests where you could kick back and relax. The family sold it, and it is a bit more buttoned up than it used to be, but Caldwell’s adventures, as he retold them year after year, remain. The book actually is a story about how not to do things, but somehow Caldwell survived.

Desperate Voyage was published in 1947. Sheridan House republished it in 1991, and it is widely available online. I also recommend his wife’s book, Mary’s Voyage, which is a sequel to Desperate Voyage. Sheridan House published it in 2008. 


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