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Book Review: West of the Equator

West of the Equator tells the fictional story of Rob Mariner, a thirty-two-year old Chicago stockbroker with half a million in the bank, a BMW, penthouse apartment and a high-maintenance fiancée, who – thanks to one rum too many - wakes up in English Harbour the morning after Antigua Race Week to find himself the owner of a 75’ Spronk catamaran and (soon) none of the above.

Even if the ensuing story of a high-octane American trying to untangle life in the Lesser Antilles seems familiar, Cheryl DuBois’ novel is far more than a retread of Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival some forty years before. Whereas Wouk’s novel was set on an imaginary island, DuBois faithfully recreates the Antigua, St Maarten and St Barths of the early Eighties. Many of the events she describes – from a shootout at Pic Paradis to the climactic hurricane – are part of island folklore, and among the characters lurk the shadows of Randy West, Pat Turner, Lorna Steele and Paul Marshall.

If the descriptions of boat handling & repairs, officialdom and inter-vessel altruism seem especially vivid, it is because DuBois herself ran a charter business in St Maarten from 1979 to 1986. Having learnt to sail on the Chesapeake Bay, she became one of the first women to obtain the USCG Captain’s License and headed down to the islands. “I stopped here on the way to Aruba to pick up a boat, met my first husband and never left,” she says.

In the age before megayachts adorned Simpson Bay, she captained 50’ Ikhaya, during a time when, “St Maarten was the happening spot. Many of our clients were celebrities – Jackie O, Paul Newman, John Lennon, The Rolling Stones…”

Not all the local nautical activity was devoted to hospitality. “There was a big, wealthy contingent of ‘gentleman sailors’ – probably smugglers,” she remembers, who would unload and swap bounty off Ile Fourche.

DuBois’ tale of ‘island fever’, ‘the coconut telegraph’ and dispassionate, random incarceration will ring a bell with any cruiser today, but the background of her novel belongs to a lost era, she admits. “It was a little looser back then. You sort of had to take matters into your own hands.” She tells her own story of how her ‘immaculate’ boat was the first boat to come up for inspection with the Charter Boat Association.

“There was a man who came from the Virgin Islands and told us that she was in a deplorable condition and would be taken out of service. We asked ‘why?’ It was because we didn’t have fluorescent tape on our life preservers! This went on for weeks. Another boat came up for inspection and he did the same thing, until eventually the entire fleet was down.” So far, nothing out of the ordinary.But…

“I believe the other captains picked this guy up and took him over to Scrub or Dog Island and left him there for three days with a bottle of water and a pack of cigarettes and said ‘now do you want to leave the island?!’”

DuBois originally wrote the story as a screenplay some fifteen years ago, but when Captain Ron flopped, no one wanted to touch a boat movie. Undeterred, DuBois took herself to Hawaii, locked herself in a hotel room and came back with the first 100 pages of a novel. She made frequent trips back to St Maarten to close out the details, and even chartered a boat with a group of friends three years ago to recreate the book’s journey entirely.

“I wrote 90% of the book sitting on a beach, either in St Maarten or on some other island,” she offers as words of inspiration to anyone reading this on deck at a loose end right now.

Ironically, the book is now being made into a movie, with shooting due to begin in the local islands this summer. While the likes of Russell Crowe and Samuel L Jackson fight it out over the role of Island Water World’s manager, you can grab a copy at most Caribbean chandleries, or by logging on to www.westoftheequator.com

Price $16.95

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