Saturday, March 21, 2015

Smugglers, Friends and Sailors

A blast from the past when I least expected it.

Still grieving for my brother, I have also been super sad over all my close friends who seem to have crossed the rainbow ahead of me. One of them being Bob Denniston (1919-2002). Yes, he was 40 years older than me but we were very close. I was thrilled to have known Bob the last 15 years of his life. Matter of fact, we had dinner just 2 nights before he passed away in his sleep. Throughout my entire life just about all my close friends were/are older than me. Perhaps I  have an old soul tucked inside that draws us together.

Back in the late 80's, Bob Denniston gave me this T-shirt (shown below). I left it on a sailboat in the British Virgin Islands that belonged to a friend of mine. One day he needed a clean shirt, so he wore mine after enlarging the neck and removing the sleeves.

Speed forward 20 something years and my old sailing buddy comes to visit me in Florida recently. He was wearing my old T-shirt! The one Bob gave me.

Bob and his wife Nell were the owners of Smugglers Cove Hotel on Tortola in the Virgin Islands on the British side. They purchased it around 1968 and ran it along with a bar and restaurant up until around 1989 when hurricane Hugo destroyed much of the hotel. They tried to rebuild but another storm tore the roof off again. While trying to rebuild and renovate, they were plagued by thieves that stole much of the building supplies including two European style toilets. (More on that later.)

Nell became gravely ill and they abandoned plans for rebuilding while Bob nurtured the love of his life. The beach bar became a self-service honor bar with patrons making their own drinks and placing their cash under a rock for Bob to collect later. It was Nell's wish to remain by the sea in her final days despite constant pleadings from other relatives to be moved to a hospital or nursing home in Florida. The thought of that disgusted her and Bob set her up in a hospital bed in one of the old hotel rooms he had converted to a studio apartment. Thus Nell had a view of the white sandy beach known as Smugglers Cove every day until she passed around 2000. Her ashes were scattered at her beloved beach.

That same year, I acquired use of a vacation beach house  annexed to Bob's property, with an income split of 25/75. I did not own the beach house, an overseas owner did and it was doing dismally as a beach rental because it was in sad shape.

I set up a company to manage the beach house. First we did renovations, refurbishing, refurnishing and redecorating. That first year, I lived at the beach house most of the time because of lack of rentals, but I created a web page and set up the house as a full service vacation home with daily maid, chef and concierge services. There was nothing like that on Tortola and we began to do amazingly well. By the third year, I was bringing in nearly a quarter million in rental fees, split between me and the owners. You would think everyone would be wonderfully grateful and happy (I sure was!) but sadly the owners of the beach house were super rich and extremely greedy. In a fit of bragging they showed the financial records to a nasty local islander (me being the foreigner running a business on foreign shores) and she in turn convinced the owners that she could do the exact same thing I was doing for only 10% rather than 25%.

In this under handed snake-in-the-grass deal, no one realized that I owned 100% of the management company which relied on the 25% income and nobody could steal the management company out from under my feet, though they tried a dozen different ways. I sought legal help to enforce my contract but the wealthy owners had very deep pockets. They could and did "outlawyer" me. It appeared that I might end up giving away all my earnings to a lawyer and lose the case. Meanwhile I was being harassed in many underhanded ways and the stress was awful. Winning the case would mean I would be continuing to work, but now in a hostile environment. It was going to take years to get this mess to court because their lawyers had powerful strings including the ability to threaten my future in that country. I gave up the fight preferring a less stressful life.

But during those happy years, I saw Bob nearly every day of the week. I had a love for the beach and I visited it almost every day to swim during my years on Tortola. After Nell passed away, Bob was back hanging at the beach whenever he wasn't napping. I began inviting Bob over for lunch or dinner or brunch whenever I was out at the beach house. He was thrilled to attend and never once declined an invitation. Other times when I wasn't living at the beach house, I was living in my tiny apartment overlooking a harbor several miles from Smugglers Cove, I still tried to get to the beach daily by driving my beat up old heap of a jeep. Many times I brought Bob a bowl or plate of whatever I had been cooking at home. He was thrilled and never left a crumb behind.
Bob Denniston, Smugglers Cove Hotel and Beach Bar Tortola, British Virgin Islands, SMugglers Cove Beach
Bob Denniston
Smugglers Cove Hotel and Beach Bar
Tortola, British Virgin Islands

Whenever the beach house wasn't rented out, I was living in it because we were always catching up on painting, gardening, improvements and so fourth between rentals. Most of the time we worked from 6am to 2pm, By 2:05pm, you could typically find me at the beach yacking it up with Bob at Smugglers Cove. Bob regaled me with stories and history of the island. Other times we sat in contented silence, watching the crazy parade go by.

My beloved brother who died recently, managed to come visit me twice during the years I had the beach house. We would schedule his visit during a time I was staying at the beach house, doing maintenance. On one visit, he was very late getting in at night. I was up cooking us a full dinner around 11:30 at night. On a whimsy, I picked up the phone and rang up Bob who was about 300 yards away in his studio talking on the Ham radio with his cronies around the world. I said "Bob, I'm making dinner, can you come up in a few minutes and eat with us?"

My brother was astonished when 80 something year old Bob came walking through the door a few minutes later. I think he was expecting someone much younger, but he quickly made fast friends with Bob. We had a terrific evening and Bob finally went home around 3am.

On a funny note, I had this penchant to go out exploring with a machete in the bush around the island. On one such hike I came across two very stylish china toilets sitting pretty as you please, in the middle of nowhere. A very curious find to be in the bush, the closest home was over two miles away. The toilets were very unique and expensive, obviously a custom order. Why on earth were they sitting out here? Was someone whimsically building a home at some point? It was a curious find indeed.

Next time I saw Bob, we were swapping island tales and I mentioned the toilets. He jumped out of his seat right before my eyes and said "Those are my stolen toilets!" Well, Bob could be as impulsive as me, so we hopped into my old red heap of jeep, bouncing down rutted dirt roads, until we came close to the trail I had blazed with the machete. We hiked the rest of the way until we came upon the toilets. Bob was astonished. Those toilets had been custom ordered by his wife Nell over 10 years earlier and stolen a few days after arrival at his hotel that was closed for renovations.

We  had a lovely dinner together with other friends 2 nights before Bob passed away in his home by the sea on Tortola. I remember that dinner so well because Bob, who never seemed to drink a drop of alcohol in spite of owning the beach bar, asked for a glass of wine. It went down so well with his food that he asked for another glass. He astonished us all by having second helpings of everything. Bob didn't normally eat so much, but this evening he seemed ravenous. When I served dessert, he raved about it so much, that when I plopped down a 2nd serving in front of him, he ate that too. It was past midnight when he went home to fire up his old ham radio and talk with his friends around the world.

The next day I didn't see him at the beach. I just figured he was napping. That evening someone called to tell me that Bob had passed away in his sleep.

This week, a crazy old salty friend turned up at my motorhome, wearing my old T-shirt. The one that Bob gave me sometime in the early 90's.

Life is goof.


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  1. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story. You have some great friends and wonderful memories. If you can't stay well stay happy. It rains on the just and the unjust at the same time.

  2. Thank you Martha! You are an angel and wise with words.

  3. Reading your story brought back a great memory for me. I had a friend for 30 years and one day we were talking and he admired a ring I had given to another friend so my friend gave the ring to him, fast forward 20 years and my friend's daughter came to my house to tell me her Father had passed away in his sleep and she wanted to give me the ring her Dad was wearing it when he you are right Life is
    goof .I have the ring in a drawer and my friend has been gone about 15 years now.Thanks for sharing.

  4. That is an amazing story!

    Wear the ring sometimes and enjoy it.

    I have an amazing ring story too, but not ready to share it yet.

    Is there something about rings going round and round?

  5. I grew up in Newton, Iowa and was friends with Bob's son Matt. I always dreamed of visiting Smugglers Cove. I will be going on a cruise next spring with a stop in Tortola and will try to find a way to see what's left of it. Thank you for sharing your story.


  6. Very informative article which is about the things to do and i must bookmark it, keep posting interesting articles.
    things to do

  7. I visited Bob a few times. He was a well known ham radio operator and being one myself (WA2VUY) I wanted to meet him. The car seen in the background is a Lincoln Continental convertible. Bob told me it was the car Queen Elizabeth rode in when she visited the BVI. It was rusting away.


Life is goof!