February, 1991: Verdant Man-O-War Cay shines boldly against a turquoise sea on a blue-white winter afternoon. Gumelemi, seagrape, and poisonwood hammocks embrace white colonial houses. High hills encircle the anchorage, protecting the harbour from the sea. On the sea bottom, the dark figure of a nurse shark at rest contrasts with the lighter hues of sand and seagrass. Where everything is remarkable, nothing is remarkable. These colors are the stuff of daily experience.
At anchor in Man-O-War’s southeastern harbour, I regret my promise to care for John Nation’s cat for two weeks while he visits his mother in Oklahoma. The paralyzing favor has just passed its fifth week when Drew sails into the anchorage on Walden. Recognizing Blue Monk (by coincidence, she belonged to him many years before), he rows over in his fiberglass Whitehall dinghy, a traditional New England rowing craft—a long glass slipper of a pulling boat with a graceful, swooping shear and a wineglass transom.
When I first met Drew at Dinner Key, he sailed a wooden, double-ended sloop named Corentina. Her planks ran stem to stern without butt blocks or scarf joints. Drew cruised her up and down the American Atlantic Coast and the Caribbean by himself. A capable navigator and a talented carpenter, he made a modest living with a Captain’s license and a coping saw. Calling upon a wealth of sailing experience, his confident voice rumbled beneath his mustache over his brown beard, relating engaging stories of his many travels and adventures, punctuated by hearty laughter. I often joined him for morning coffee or an occasional moonlight sail. Sometimes, he’d disappear for months at a time but, like so many others, Drew always found himself called back to Dinner Key.
Beaufort, North Carolina was Drew’s second home port. On a whim, he would journey into the Gulf Stream alone for the week-long passage as casually as most people head to the store for a carton of milk. He sold Corentina when he found a bargain on Walden, a fiberglass, cutter-rigged Westsail 32. He quickly hammered her into cruising shape and resumed his wanderings.
Like myself, Drew is an aficionado of the spruce oar as a mode of locomotive power. Most cruisers depend on outboard engines and inflatable dinghies for transport. But while such craft make for fast, convenient transportation, oars always start on a cold morning and require no petrochemical fuel. As with sailing, a seakindly pulling boat, responding to subtle changes in angle and pressure on the oars, inspires a unique joy.
Rowing is a cultivated taste, a skill that comes with practice. Most people can’t even stand up in a proper rowing dinghy, but a good oarsman can balance on the breasthook while he steps from his dinghy to the dock, or flip himself from the sea into his boat without shipping water. Internal combustion has its merits but a long rowing craft, like its canvas-bearing counterpart, compels one to slow down, to focus on the journey rather than the destination. Brute force has little to do with proper rowing. With polished technique, one can row at a swift and earnest pace for miles. As the musician’s practiced touch squeezes the subtle, sweet essence from a string, an accomplished rower handles his sweeps and his vessel with an intuitive mastery that spirits him effortlessly across the waves.
Drew looks at Light Blue, my Chamberlain dory-skiff tethered behind Blue Monk. My tender is the same size as his Whitehall. He smiles mischievously. “Would you like to take a row?”
A northeaster is blowing. Even behind the sixty-feet-high coral hills that surround Man-O-War anchorage, brisk gusts of wind kick up a small chop.
“Sure. Where to? I imagine the seas are pretty choppy outside.”
“Let’s go to a beach, first,” Drew suggests, “to clean the dinghies. I hate rowing with a dirty bottom and I still have a few Dinner Key barnacles to get rid of. Then we’ll go rowing and end up where we end up.” He pauses and grins before continuing. “We don’t have to choose a destination to go rowing, do we?”
The question is rhetorical, but the suggestion to clean the dinghies is a good one. I do have some weedy spots on the underside of Light Blue though barnacles don’t grow in these clear, clean waters.
We row northwest toward town, up the narrow lagoon, past moored sailboats and the docks of white-planked Bahamian houses trimmed with pastel shutters, past paths lined with conch shells and coconut palms, to a small beach where we drag our boats ashore and turn them over. A few minutes with a sharp putty knife and a coarse scrubbing pad consign scrapings of unwanted marine growth to the sand. We flip the dinghies back over, push them into the water and climb aboard.
Clean, Light Blue feels faster, as if freshly oiled. She rows easily, gliding with enthusiasm.
Drew pulls ahead, not quite challenging me to a race, but wordlessly suggesting we put our backs into the pace.
A rocky cut in the side of hairpin-shaped Man-O-War Cay provides a narrow gate for its well-protected anchorage. We exit into the Sea of Abaco.
“There’s a coral head in the channel!” Drew remarks, looking down into water that’s still fairly clear in spite of being stirred up by the chop.
“The locals know where the rocks are,” I explain. “The channel is deep enough so most of them can go over it. The rest know to go around it. I doubt anyone will be coming by to install a marker, dynamite it or file a complaint.”
Drew smiles. He knows how it is in these islands. If you don’t know where you’re going and you don’t keep your eyes open, you don’t belong here.
The lee side of Man-O-War is scrub-covered coral—sharp gray rock covered by succulent plants with an overhanging shelf undercut by thousands of years of wave action. The waves are bigger here than in the harbour; they slosh musically under the rocky shelf.
We continue, pulling steadily, breathing hard but working toward a second wind.
Drew looks over to see how I’m doing. Light Blue can handle herself in a sea. I row enough and swim enough to stay in good shape.
I’m doing great.
We continue around the point to head northeast into the wind, toward the reef and the mighty Atlantic Ocean.
The waves grow bigger. The north wind has put the distant reef in a rage. The wind is lighter than expected, probably gusting to twenty knots, but these waves were sent by far stronger winds from higher latitudes. Driving into wind and sea, we pull up and over the crests. Atlantic swells roll in from the deep, trip over the drop-off and shatter against the coral ahead of us. A mile off the coast of Man-O-War, the reef line is a seething highway of white foam and exploding silver spray. Immense glass cannonballs detonate against a wall of impenetrable rock.
We pull harder, approaching the coral wall that demarcates the deep Atlantic from the shallow Bahama Banks—the third largest barrier reef on Earth. I wonder if we might not be engaged in a foolhardy contest, but our boats are dry, handling the waves as good pulling craft were designed to. We continue out over turbulent water, our bows facing a sky that fades from pastel blue to hazy white at the horizon.
The cut receives us—a sixty-foot deep, sixty-foot wide hole in the coral battlement worn by time, tide, and geological happenstance. To either side, rocky fingers of dull orange, brown, and green clutch at the sky through the foamy remains of spent waves. Black hills of moving water thunder spectacularly against unyielding coral, hissing and sizzling as they dissipate into rainbow mist. The power surrounding us is awe-inspiring. Many ships have met their ends on this coral; some of them lie in fragmented repose beneath us. How many people have witnessed nature’s fireworks at this proximity and lived?
I look for Drew. He’s two boatlengths away, on top of a wave, six feet above me.
Blue-black swells crowd through the cut, growing taller and closer together.
Drew drops below me as I’m carried up on the crest of the next wave.
Inside the cut, the swells find no coral to break against. They pile up on themselves as they roll from the deep ocean into the shallow waters.
Where are we? The reef is difficult to make out through the big rollers.
Drew hooks his head to one side, suggesting we turn back. It would not be wise to row past the reef line and miss the cut coming back in; we’d never make it over the coral. We’ve seen what we came to see. Past this point lies nothing but miles and miles and more miles of cobalt swell.
Atop the next crest, I take a mental bearing on the houses and the white beach of Man-O-War Cay stretching off to the northwest. Hopetown Light guards the coast of Elbow Cay to the east where the Abaco out-island chain curves abruptly south. The next instant, I’m lowered into a valley surrounded by blue, foam-streaked mountains. I time my turn carefully so as not to get caught broadside by the big seas. Long, light oars give us leverage to work with our boats and the tremendous forces surging beneath them. I have an advantage with my higher freeboard. Drew ships an inch of water over his low shear, but manages his turnabout.
We head back.
The seas move faster than our boats, but pulling hard, we can almost match their speed.
Drew synchronizes his pace with a wave.
The pounding reef falls behind.
On this side of the coral, the shallow water pulses with an impressionistic watercolor glow. We glide over sand patches, seagrass beds, and coral gardens, pulling hard, straining to keep pace with the racing seas we ride. The incoming tide runs with the wind, flooding onto the banks, carrying us back to shore. The swells diminish as we distance ourselves from the coral, but these blue horses are charged with the power of a North Atlantic gale. Large enough to carry us briskly, they are strong enough to capsize our boats if they can catch us abeam. We time each wave, surfing with extended oars to control direction and balance.
Drew stays one wave ahead.
I can’t catch him.
We laugh and shout as we charge through the flying rollers.
I feel each incoming wave, gauging how the swell will lift; then pull and turn my tiny boat. By design, we row facing away from our destination. Atop the crests, I glance over my shoulder to take fresh bearings on Man-O-War’s rocky southeastern shore. That coast is no place I’d care to land in these conditions, but our course around the island’s point is true. After a long few minutes, we round the island to turn into Man-O-War’s lee, into the gentle chop behind its rocky shore, over the coral head that sits in the middle of the entrance channel, and past the piling marking the edge of the shoal inside the lagoon.
Seen from the Queen’s Highway—the jungle-shaded footpath that runs along the spine of the island—or perhaps from the white porch of a pink-shuttered Bahamian house on the harbour’s edge, two sun-darkened figures rowing into Man-O-War harbour are hardly remarkable, even with a norther blowing and the reef in a rage. Where everything is remarkable, nothing is remarkable. These colors are the stuff of daily experience.