The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean
Brothers Carrll & Gary Robilotta first moved to the Island of Montserrat in the autumn of 1980. Regarded as 'The Emerald Island of the Caribbean', Montserrat was an exceptionally lush, mountainous island with a myriad of enviable attributes. For two young surfers from southern California, the only thing that truly mattered, however, was whether or not the Island had waves. As it happened, Montserrat turned out to have excellent surf and 'Da Braddahs' had the pleasure of pioneering the sport of surfing on the Emerald Isle and the honour of discovering and naming its many quality breaks.
"My dad had been hired to manage a private investment bank and the plan was to move the entire family to Montserrat. This trip was a reconnaissance mission of sorts: dad reckoned that if I took a liking to the Island, my brother & sister would also enjoy it," recalls Carrll of his first trip to the Island back in 1980.
"I still remember approaching the Emerald Isle from neighboring Antigua. As the turbo-prop plane banked around the last headland for the approach into Blackburne Airport, I was giddy over the sight of white-washed reefs stretching for miles on either side of the short landing strip.
"After settling in at our new home, I promptly rented a Yamaha enduro and scouted the entire Island for breaks," Carrll remembers. "Everywhere I went, I asked the locals about surfing and they'd look at me puzzled. As far as I could determine, no one had seen or even heard of surfing on the Island.
Paddling out at Trants Bay for the first time was magical. I surfed really fun head-high waves all day long as a group of local kids watched from the shoreline atop their donkeys. Each time I caught a wave they would shout gleefully and wave frantically."
Carrll drove out to the Island's windward coast for the next four or five days, ecstatic that his new Island home seemed to have fun, consistent waves, albeit a bit on the bumpy side due to side-onshore winds. It wasn't until perhaps two weeks into his arrival, however, that he stumbled upon the evidence he was hoping to find: surf on the leeward side of the Island.
"With the prevailing trades blowing offshore on Montserrat's west side,
it was my hope that we'd have waves there," Carrll recollects.
"I was poking around a little gift shop in the town of Plymouth one day and spotted a matted 8x10 print of what looked like the rivermouth located just down the beach from where our home was situated. I was astonished by the image of a clean wave which appeared to be in the 3-4' range. A perfectly-shaped right peeling away in an empty line-up! Once again, I was giddy and promptly phoned my brother who was still back in California with my mom and sister, making final preparations for the big move over the the Island," Carrll recounts. "'Dude, I bought a picture in Town today which has a perfect wave peeling at Belham Valley Rivermouth!'. There was a moment of silence, then Gary asked, "Is it a right or a left?"
'It's a right, a perfect right!' I shouted.
My brother howled in anticipation and a few days later we found ourselves keeping a close watch on the break which had thus far showed no signs of a rideable wave."
It was a mid-October morning when the Robilotta boys woke up to a perfect triangle of white-water peeling at The Rivermouth. From their verandah, they could see what looked like 3' rights peeling for maybe 75 yards, offshore winds blowing the spray from the crisp, clean lips.
"We grabbed our boards and ran down the road, through the Vue Point Hotel, and down the stretch of beach to Isles Bay; we must've looked like maniacs," chuckles Gary. "...The waves were unbelievable!".
Belham Valley Rivermouth: A Caribbean Dream-Wave
For a couple of surfers weaned on close-out beach-breaks in the chilly waters of southern California, the reality of living on a tropical island with perfect waves seemed more like a dream. While Montserrat would reveal a number of excellent waves for the brothers to pioneer and revel in, the crown jewel of breaks was the Belham Valley Rivermouth. Apart from a being situated in a pristine, Shangrila-like environment, the wave itself was a perfectly-sculpted dream epitomizing the very embodiment of the type of wave every school-age surfer draws on their binders, books, and whatever else they can 'customize' during long lectures in class: a hollow-yet-playful lime-green right-hander with machine-like consistency peeling perfectly for 75+ yards over round, smooth river rock. The reef was shallow, but the only true obstacle/threat lay inside: the steel carcass of an old boat gone awry.
"To this day, The Belham Valley Rivermouth is the best wave I've ever surfed!" asserts Gary.
"Giddy-up," concurs his brother.
During their thirteen years on the Island, Gary & Carrll would discover and surf over half a dozen quality breaks on Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, each with its own unique flavor. Incredibly, the Robilotta brothers were the only two resident surfers on the Island for over ten years, occasionally sharing their bounty with surfers sailing through the Islands or the few others who would spend a season or two on Montserrat before moving on. Eventually, a couple of local friends of theirs took interest in learning to surf and would occasionally join the brothers on a loaner board of theirs or an old boogie board they kept around for fun.
In hindsight, the brothers maintain that Montserrat had the best waves they've ever surfed. "Even after living in Hawai'i--the birth-place of surfing--for twenty-three years now, there's nothing better than surfing good waves with no one else around," Gary reckons.
"The fact that we had all the waves to ourselves for over ten years was unbelievable even to us," he muses. "There were days when the waves at The Rivermouth were so good that we would surf for eight or nine hours, with only a brief time-out to hydrate with fresh coconuts from the trees growing along the shoreline," Gary reminisces. "One blustery autumn afternoon after we were surfed out, we created a little surf camp down at The Rivermouth, replete with a large cargo-net hammock, rock wall, Coleman cooler, a couple of camp chairs, and a fire pit. The crude sign we posted read: 'Welcome to Montserrat Boardriders Club ~ Enjoy ~ Don't Destroy'. ...For my brother & I, those were indeed our 'Golden Years' of surfing."
Synchronicity Never Happens Just Once
The year was 1983 and Gary had begun tinkering on a grand piano which the family had shipped over from St. Thomas. Each day, he'd spend a couple of hours at the keys. Before long, Gary's musical talent began to reveal itself as he began composing mellifluous melodies.
The downstairs portion of the Robilotta home had a self-contained apartment which is where Carrll lived. "I'd be downstairs blasting my records while working out on the lana'i," he remembers. "Sir George Martin's Air Studios Montserrat was located about a ten minute drive from our house, atop WaterWorks Estate. Our neighborhood was full of rental villas and quite regularly we'd have the likes of Elton John, Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart,
and Boy George as neighbors.
"One afternoon, Sting was walking past our house with his little son, Joe. He paused and loitered in front of our house for a few minutes, apparently listening to the piano music emanating from the upstairs. I was a huge fan of his music and decided to walk to the edge of my lawn to say hello.
With some trepidation, I invited the rock star and his son to come up for a glass of iced tea. He seemed a bit reluctant but walked up the lawn and we sat down for a few minutes. His toddler quickly took to our dog 'Dino' and they promptly engaged in a game of chase after our pet rabbit which roamed about the garden, trying its best to out-wit the pair. Sting & I exchanged pleasantries while waiting for my jar of sun-tea to cool in the freezer."
"Who plays the piano upstairs?," he enquired.
"My brother, Gary," I responded.
Sting sat back and listened intently to the melody. "I don't think I've heard this before," he commented.
"No, he composes his own music but never seems to play the same thing twice," I said, as nonchalantly as possible.
"He's very talented," Sting complimented.
In typical teenage fashion, I told the famous rock star I was a huge fan of The Police and mentioned that I'd just been listening to Outlandos D'Amour and how much I loved the album.
"Yes, I heard it as I was coming up the road; thanks very much," he responded appreciatively.
"I can't get over the coincidence of you walking past our house while I was listening to The Police," I mused.
"It's called 'Synchronicity'," Sting explained; I looked at him with a puzzled expression.
"It's based on the theorems of [eminent Swiss psycho-analyst] Dr. Carl Jung," he expounded; "the brilliant doctor postulated that when two seemingly unrelated events occur simultaneously--what most people would term 'coincidence'--is not...upon closer inspection, there's a common denominator unifying those events."
Though I wasn't quite following him, I had the sense that this was an important piece of wisdom the former school teacher was sharing. I nodded politely and thanked him for the lesson.
A few years hence, The Police's final album, 'Synchronicity' was released to critical acclaim. [The hit-single, 'Every Breath You Take' still gets plenty of air-play today]. Partly-recorded on Montserrat, it became the band's greatest-selling album as well as a personal favourite of ours. The very same week the album dropped, Gary found himself at Air Studios recording his first piano masters...Synchronicity had struck again.
Gary would continue to compose amazing music and has since self-produced three albums. 'Project: Montserrat' was his first release on CD as a benefit for the people of the Island in the wake of the Volcano's first eruptions. From the first cut to the final track, the album is truly outstanding.
Offshore: Great for Surfing!...For Banking? Not So Much
In 1980, offshore banking was in its infancy in the Caribbean region and quickly hit its stride. "Dad's efforts to establish a [legitimate] private investment bank were thwarted by the sheer number of bunko 'banks' registered with resident attorneys on Montserrat, as well as on many of the other islands in the Caribbean. It wasn't long before the entire region acquired an unsavory reputation for banking, with all privately-owned banks--both legitimate and not--being painted with the same brush. Legions of unscrupulous types sought out places like Montserrat because of the lack of banking regulations," explains Carrll. "Their modus operandi were dubious, in many cases shrouded in complexity; their collective goal was to defraud investors of hundreds of thousands--and in several instances, millions of dollars--by promising impossibly huge returns on their investments. It was a house of cards destined to collapse.
"Dad saw the writing on the wall and returned to banking in L.A. where he'd been a well-respected banker with a forty year career at several major domestic and international banks," the elder brother continues. "For the time being, the rest of the family decided to stay in Montserrat."
Things came to a head in 1984 when Scotland Yard and the FBI conducted a joint sweep of Montserrat's 'paper banks' (i.e., banks existing only on paper, having no physical presence on the Island). In some cases, arrests and extraditions were made, hauling away crooks who'd been in hiding.
Carrll & Gary recall being out in the water surfing their beloved rivermouth break while ABC news cameras were filming from the beach, panning up into the hillside towards a luxury vacation villa known to be the lair of one of the more infamous 'bankers'.
As a British Crown Colony, Mother England has since installed greater regulatory measures which ensure the proper management of the Island's financial sector.
Hurricane Hugo and The Volcano: A One-Two Punch and TKO
In September of 1989, the biggest storm to hit the Caribbean in one hundred years began its ominous journey from the west coast of Africa. "Gary tracked the storm carefully and had a bad feeling about it. In contrast, I dismissed it as hype and predicted it would be nothing more than a mere puff of wind," chuckles Carrll, shaking his head in bemusement."...About as bad a prediction as I've ever made," he sheepishly admits.
Hurricane Hugo was a direct hit on Montserrat with sustained winds of 180 m.p.h. and gusts up to 220 m.p.h.; a Category 5+++ storm if ever there was one. The storm demolished hundreds of homes and buildings, including historic churches dating back to the 18th century. Massive trees were uprooted and toppled over, power lines and poles were strewn about like chop-sticks and chow-mein noodles.
"We were fortunate in that our house faired fairly well, losing only half of our roof," recounts Gary. "My brother & I were sort of hoping we'd get to experience a hurricane to see how big the waves would get. Ironically, after the hurricane hit, the last thing on our minds was surfing; our sole focus was to re-roof the house as quickly as possible," he continues. "The Island had no running water for over two weeks and no electric power for three months; things were pretty dire there for awhile," Gary tells of the disaster.
The hurricane had placed a huge economic strain on Montserrat and its people, including the Robilotta Family. In January of 1990, they decided it was time to leave the Emerald Isle and chose Hawai'i as their destination. Spending the first year on O'ahu, they relocated to Maui in 1991, which has been home for the family ever since. But Montserrat's allure would beckon the Robilottas back in 1994. As fate would have it, however, in September of 1995 'The Soufriere', Montserrat's volcano which had lain dormant for approximately 400 years, suddenly roared back to life. "Overnight, the Island went from near obscurity to world news," remembers Carrll. Scientists and seismologists from around the world descended on Montserrat and set up camp to study the Volcano.
"One of our final memories was surfing in perfect conditions on the windward side with a couple of good friends, all the while the volcano spewing out a thick grey- black cloud of smoke from the crater behind us...it was surreal and bitter-sweet," remembers Gary, "as we knew our time on the Island was coming to an end."
"Gary & I had been creating two & three-dimensional steel sculptures. Among Gary's many creative designs was one of a volcano in the midst of an eruption. That piece had been made some six months prior to the Volcano suddenly erupting," Carrll recounts in an ominous tone. "...I couldn't help but think of Sting's lesson some eight years prior."
A few months later, the Robilottas were back in Maui. "Sadly, dad passed away in 1998 and in the summer of 2010 we were devastated by the loss of our sister," shares Carrll. "We've managed to pick up the pieces but all of us feel the loss deeply. ...We always remember dad's wish for us to never part with the house in Montserrat...it's the only place we can call 'ours'."
"We have lots of emotional and sentimental stock invested in the place," chimes Gary.
Though the Volcano would obliterate a large portion of Montserrat's lush landscape, the historic town of Plymouth, and several surrounding villages, the Island remains as beautiful and desirable a place as it ever was. For fans of eco-tourism, the Volcano has created an amazing environment for trekkers and explorers, as well as mountain bike enthusiasts and kayakers.
"The warmth and character of Montserrat's native people, the unhurried pace of the Island's way of life, and--best of all--its still-empty line-ups are just a few of the attributes that make the Emerald Isle unique and special. For the fortunate yet relative few who will ever experience the magic of Montserrat, its allure is unmistakable yet somewhat ineffable," summarizes Carrll.
Though the Robilotta Brothers still own the family's home in Montserrat, it is in dire need of repairs and a face-lift. For both of them, the place holds a great deal of sentimental value. "Gary's piano is still in the living room and we have a quiver of surfboards in the downstairs storage area," says Carrll. "The place was 'home' for our family for many years and, somewhat ironically, the only house we still own." The brothers are both seeking God's will and timing for their beloved former home and it is their collective hope that the time is right to embark on a new chapter for the house. "Our vision is to create a unique, fully-equipped villa which will cater to surfers and eco-tourits," says Gary.
Montserrat Boardriders Villa: The Phoenix Rises
Sharing the desire to retain the home and preserve its surfing legacy, the brothers' collective vision is to assemble a group of twelve surfers/investors who would be interested in investing in the Robilotta's house in order to help them create a new chapter for the property by transforming it into an exclusive surf & adventure retreat: The Montserrat Boardriders Surf Villa!
Each interested investor would be asked to invest $10,000. so that the Brothers Robilotta can raise the estimated $120K needed to refurbish & refurnish the house, including updating/outfitting the Villa with a new quiver of surfboards, SUP boards, kayaks, mountain bikes, and other amenities which will be available for the exclusive use of each investor/member. The resulting Montserrat Boardriders Club Surf Villa will be available for the enjoyment of each member and their families & friends for two weeks each year for a period of ten years!
During their ten year benefit period, members will have the right to sell or transfer their membership. Founding members will also be able to subsidise their investment by enjoying revenue generated from short-term rental of the Villa when not used by themselves, family members, or friends. [Please visit the Boardriders Villa page for more details].
As a foot-note, Montserrat is on the cusp of a concerted revitalization effort.
Montserrat Boardriders Club & Surf Villa
'Da Braddahs' at Old Road Bay ~ circa 1984
Pelican Point at Old Road Bay
Gary & the Triumph Fairthorpe he rebuilt from the ground up
Gary reviewing his recording at Air Studios Montserrat ~ 1987
Galway's Estate sugar mill & ruins
Sound Tech extraordinaire, Franko Oglethorpe at the board
The windward coast with pyroclastic flows
Gary's Project: Montserrat CD cover with original artwork & photos
Masha enjoys a Maui rainbow
*This site is audio-enhanced. Your speakers should be powered on.
Andy, Sting, & Stewart during the 'Ghost In The Machine' sessions at Air Montserrat
Montserrat Boardriders' Base Camp ~ Belham Valley Estuary ~ 1982