Tracking down a mystery writer in the Caribbean

Where can we find Henry Tibbett? Though he was last seen on a ferry heading for Holland, fans of mystery writer Patricia Moyes will know that Tibbett, chief superintendent of Scotland Yard, can often be found sleuthing around the Caribbean on the ``British Seaward Islands'' (obviously a fictionalized British Virgin Islands). He has survived hurricanes, discovered drug smugglers, unearthed corrupt governments, and solved murders.

Not the kind of things normally found in travel brochures. But a few years ago, my wife and I filled every weekend with a different Moyes book, altogether about 19 of them.

So while we were in Virgin Gorda on a sailing vacation, we looked up Penny Haszard (who writes under the name of Patricia Moyes), her husband, Jim, and their five dogs.

To get to the Haszards' dwelling, we took a cab from Leverick Bay along roads that seemed more like goat paths.

``This is scarier than any of our sailing,'' said my wife, Kathy.

Rupert, our driver, was unconcerned, though he honked at every person and cow walking along the road. On an island of only 1,200 residents, there were few people Rupert didn't know, so the horn on his jeep was busy.

A rain shower along the way didn't faze Rupert: the jeep had a canvas roof protecting the driver.

We passengers, sitting in the back seat, were the only ones who got wet. That was alright, though, since the sun here provides the quickest laundry-drying service around.

Building on Virgin Gorda can be almost as challenging as driving, Mrs. Haszard explained to us as we sat on her balcony looking down on Spanish Town, the main harbor.

The challenge for the Haszards' architect was finding enough level land to build a cistern to hold water during the dry season.

Expensive landfill allowed the Haszards to build a series of white cottages, instead of one main residence. The largest cottage, which includes the living room and kitchen, guards a 19,000-gallon reservoir that fills up when rainwater rolls off the roof.

So, as the showers washed off our sun screen, the residents here were adding to their water supply, which will last them through the dry season that usually starts in December.

From the balcony, Haszard can watch sailboats make their way up the Sir Francis Drake Channel. To sailors, one of the appeals of the Virgin Islands is this channel, which protects them from the Atlantic swells and Caribbean chop but still funnels the trade winds that blow nonstop from Africa. Almost all ports in the channel are within a 20-mile radius.

After a lunch of beef Wellington, we piled into the Haszards' jeep with Spot, a dog of local pedigree, and drove to Little Trunk Bay, one of the most beautiful beaches on the island.

Around it are expensive homes: one built by a French millionaire art dealer who visits only occasionally, and another by a rich American who air-conditions everything. But, under British law, all land below the high-water mark belongs to the Queen - hence to the public.

Granite boulders the size of trucks emerge from the water a mere 25 yards away, forming an aquatic Stonehenge.

On no other coast do these boulders exist, Haszard told us, ``and no one is quite sure how they got here.''

Near our private pool were the Baths, a jumble of rocks drawing both fish and people. Sailboats were tangling anchor lines while swimmers snorkeled and explored the natural aquarium.

Not far away but hidden from view was Little Dix Bay, a resort built in the 1960s by Laurence Rockefeller. It literally put Virgin Gorda on the tourism map.

``Until then, Virgin Gorda was the slum of the Caribbean,'' said Haszard. Other resorts followed, and now islanders who want jobs related to tourism can find them.

After another rain shower, we went back to the house, where Haszard pulled out a scrapbook. There was a black-and-white photo of her in Royal Air Force (RAF) uniform with Peter Ustinov and Ralph Richardson.

From her experience working on a secret radar project during the war, she became an adviser to Ustinov for his movie ``School for Secrets.'' Those war years also gave her the technical background to write ``Johnny Underground,'' a mystery about an RAF flyer.

She left Ustinov's employ in 1953 and joined the English edition of Vogue as assistant editor. In the mystery ``Murder `a la Mode,'' an editor of a fashion magazine is the victim. ``Guess who that was?'' she said with a grin.

The black-and-white photos show Haszard and her husband perched on a small sailboat. They met when she advertised for crew and he answered the ad. Sailing becomes a theme in her book ``Down Among the Dead Men.'' Skiing, another avocation, is featured in ``Dead Men Don't Ski.''

When we left Haszard after just a few short hours, we felt we had become friends. I think this must be the way mystery writers get characters. I just hope I don't find myself on the short end in a Moyes mystery now.

We hoisted anchor at Leverick Bay and sailed for Jost Van Dyke, a sleepy island on the far side of Tortola. We had already visited Jost before the trip to the Haszards. Now, we wanted to return, since Virgin Gorda seemed too civilized.

On the way to to Virgin Gorda, we had sailed out into the Atlantic and enjoyed three- to four-foot seas, with 20 knots of wind. Now, the wind was a whisper, leaving only a swell from the north. With the help of the engine (what sailors call the ``iron jib'') we arrived at Jost.

We threw our anchor in 20 feet of water in Great Harbor.

Each morning I went for a swim over the side. We took the dinghy to White Bay, named for a sandy beach so bright it can be seen from the channel between the islands miles away.

The manager of a small hotel, White Bay Sandcastle, suggested snorkeling on the western side of the island, where the water drops off to 120 feet within yards of the shoreline.

``You can see tarpon and 8-foot makos right off the rocks,'' he said.

Even if the mako, a shark, would be spooked by our splashing into the water, we decided to confine our exploring to smaller fish.

At night at Great Harbor, we joined other seamen motoring ashore to fight the sand flies and listen to Feliciano Callwood play the guitar at his lean-to called Foxy's.

A charter captain talked about sailing down island to Montserrat, where he kept his own sailboat. A young North Carolina woman had crossed the Atlantic five times. But this week she was chief cook and babysitter on a 65-foot sloop. A man from Boston was explaining how to keep teak bright. The closest we got to reality was a song Foxy Feliciano sang about President Reagan and ``Irangate.''

We got a taste of island life that we will remember all winter. Practical information

To get to the British Virgin Islands, fly to San Juan, Puerto Rico, or St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands, and then catch an inter-island flight to Beef Island or Virgin Gorda. Proof of citizenship is necessary.

To charter a sailboat: The largest charter company on Tortola is the Moorings, located in Roadtown. A French sailboat company, Beneteau, builds almost all the boats chartered by the Moorings.

We used Tortola Yacht Charters, which is in Nanny Cay. They charter Endeavors, although we sailed a C&C 41. For a list of charter companies, send $2.50 to Island Publishing Services Ltd., PO Box 133, Roadtown, Tortola, British Virgin Islands. Or buy a copy of your favorite sailing magazine. The largest companies advertise. Almost all the charter companies will provide captains for an additional fee. You had better plan on spending $1,200-$2,000 per week for a charter this season.

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