Morgan Freeman Sails the BVI
The Academy Award winner finds a home away from home on Virgin Gorda
by Claudia Colli
Photos by Amanda Baker
In 1991, actor Morgan Freeman sailed into Virgin Gorda and found a home away from home. Since then, the Academy Award winner has sailed throughout the Caribbean basing his yacht in both Grenada and Trinidad, but has always returned to Virgin Gorda where he found what he calls "the simple life."
"I had been in St. Martin knocking back and forth between St. Martin and St Barths and was planning on sailing down island," he recalls. "Some friends that I had met years before said that I shouldn't go anywhere until I went 90 miles to the Virgin Islands. So l took the sail and stayed five years."
"When I first got to Virgin Gorda it was very rustic; old school with goats and cows on the street," explains Freeman. Among the first people he met were Rosemary Giacinto, her late husband, Mike, and his brother Joe who owned a local dive shop. "I hooked up with them right away, and we became very close," he says, soon becoming a regular at the couple's popular island restaurant, the Bath and Turtle.
Freeman acquired his taste for sailing in 1967 aboard an 18-foot Lightning class centerboard boat. He was working at the Stowe Playhouse in Stowe, Vermont and it was a life changing experience. "I was not only smitten," he declares, "I was hooked for life." Since then both his career and his passion for sailing have taken off. He has worked in off-Broadway and Broadway productions since the mid-60s, and one of his earliest film appearances was in the 1981 movie Brubaker starring Robert Redford. But it was his roles as the chauffeur Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy and as Sergeant Major Rawlins in the civil war movie, Glory, both in 1989, that put him on the Hollywood map. He won an academy award for Best Supporting Actor for the Clint Eastwood directed movie, Million Dollar Baby and was most recently nominated for another one for his role as Nelson Mandela in Invictus, also directed by Clint Eastwood.
Freeman's distinctive voice can be heard on the nature documentary, March of the Penguins, and in July of last year he recorded the introduction for the CBS Evening News with anchor Katie Couric. Among his current projects is the Worm Hole, a Science Channel program produced by his company, Revelations Entertainment. Hosted by Freeman, the program which will be going into its second season explores the "mysteries of existence."
Although he is one of Hollywood's busiest actors he also knows how to kick back, and over the years sailing has become his refuge. His skills were honed, he says, in the waters and anchorages of Long Island Sound, New England and Nova Scotia. On a trip between New York and Bermuda on his 30-foot yacht he encountered what he terms "my survival storm," an event that helped him appreciate sailing in the Caribbean all the more.
Since his first trip to the Caribbean in 1989 he has spent as much time as possible exploring the region's many islands. In the '90s he discovered the Grenadines which soon became one of his favorite sailing grounds and his boat's home base for five years. When Hurricane Ivan struck the islands in 2004, a Grenadian friend called him asking for help. Freeman got in touch with his publicist Donna Lee for some ideas, and she suggested a Caribbean cookbook.
The result was more than a just a cookbook, it was an ode to the islands that he loved. Titled Morgan Freeman & Friends, Caribbean Cooking for a Cause, the book profiles 18 celebrities, the islands they visit and the restaurants they enjoy. Among others, this "destination cookbook" features Michael Douglas on Bermuda; Terrence Howard on The Caymans; Alicia Keys on Jamaica, and of course, Morgan Freeman on Virgin Gorda. Tim Robbins, Freeman's co-star in the Shawshank Redemption takes on St. Croix and Tom Hanks highlights St. Barths. The recipes come from renowned chefs and top-rated resorts on each island. Although Freeman credits Donna with the idea, they both contacted people they knew with Caribbean connections and sympathies. BVI based photographer, Amanda Baker, took the photographs in the book's Virgin Gorda section as well as the cover photograph of Freeman sitting at Chez Bamboo.
Freeman's introduction sums up the project's goal succinctly and simply: "My hope for this book is not only that it raises boatloads of money for the Grenada Relief fund and thereby helps my island friends, but also that you who are reading it will experience in some small way the joy that I have experienced in these islands. So we've organized the book as I would plan a sailing trip – making time for friends, for exquisite food and for the beauty and uniqueness of the many islands we visit."
After Grenada, the actor reestablished Virgin Gorda as his Caribbean base. "I was homesick for the BVI. The weather, the waters, the ambiance; the sailing is what keeps me coming back to the BVI," he admits. "There's a lot of sailing you can do here – comfortable sailing." When in the BVI, Freeman stays aboard his 43-foot Shannon which he bought in 1996, juggling the responsibilities of a successful movie career and the pleasures of living aboard his boat.
Development has taken its toll on the simple life, and over his years here the actor has watched the islands develop, no longer the rustic port that he first sailed into years ago. Yet, Virgin Gorda remains a place that he feels comfortable, and he has easily melded into the island's social and business scene. He counts Rosemary's other restaurant in The Valley, Chez Bamboo, as another favorite hangout, and is partners with her and two others in Princess Quarters, a development on the south west point of Virgin Gorda, which includes a home owned by his former wife Myrna Colley Lee. Rosemary describes Freeman as a "down to earth person with a warm personality; he is interested in the people around him and what they are doing, whether they are a sailor or a dock worker."
On his last visit, he stayed for a month, spending Christmas with Rosemary and friends, and in January, he was inducted as an honorary member of the Rotary Club of Road Town. He then took a business associate out sailing for a few days before returning to the States, where he appeared at the 50th Anniversary Celebration for the Presidency of John F. Kennedy at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. His narration of text taken from Kennedy's speeches and writings accompanied a world premiere work performed by the National Symphony Orchestra. His home base is a Mississippi farm not far from where he grew up, yet the BVI continues to call him back. His next trip here will depend on his movie schedule – he has several projects in the pipeline – and, of course, the lure of the Caribbean sea.