In the Dinner Key Anchorage, Mike, a stocky white-haired man with a stern brow, anchors next to me for several months, flying Canadian colors over Peapod, his home-built steel boat. We pass each other often enough to become friendly. Peapod is cleverly put together; Mike tells me with a smile that her mast is actually a salvaged aluminum telephone pole. I know my way around, so I help him to find what he needs in Miami. When he’s ready to sail on, he invites me over to thank me for being a good neighbor. To my surprise, his wife Betty is with him; I’ve never seen her aboard. “I like living on the boat,” she explains, “but I don’t like it when the wind blows and the rigging starts rattling. I’m happier when it’s calm, when we’re at anchor and the boat isn’t heeling over.”
Having come down the Intracoastal Waterway from Montréal to make final preparations in Miami, Mike gets Peapod ready to leave for the Bahamas as soon as the weather is right for a Gulf Stream crossing. “We’ll be staying at Dove Cay in the Exumas,” he tells me. “It’s a private island; we’ll be the caretakers. Stop by for a visit if you get down that far south.”
Winter is a time to watch the sky for telltale signs of cold fronts racing down from Arctic latitudes, a time to stay close to sheltered harbours. But I’ve crossed these Yellow Banks twice already, once in rough weather. I’ll shoot down from Nassau and then island-hop south. Though I’m not sure how far I’ll go or where I’ll end up, I make Georgetown in the southern Exumas my goal; it’s one of the places Trimaran John always talked about.
The Exuma Cays are of a different character than the comparatively lush Abaco chain to the north, where a large main island and a chain of out-islands define the boundaries of a protected bay. These islands are a battleground where ocean and land fight for dominion. Though the waters are clear and colorful and vibrant, bleakness lives here, too. Gone are the pine forests and hardwood hammocks. The Exumas are rugged and desolate, an intimidating landscape both exotic and remote, where thin scrub vegetation clings to tortured rock formations. Twice daily, the tide pulls unfathomable quantities of water on and off these banks. With no large mainland to moderate the current, the islands take the brunt of shifting tides. The cuts between them are subject to fast moving currents and wandering shoals; it’s prudent to traverse them when the tide is slack.
Allen’s Cay is the northernmost anchorage in this chain of islands that stretches southward from a point forty-two miles southeast of Nassau to a latitude just south of Havana. Uninhabited except by a species of Bahamian marine iguana, Allen’s Cay is actually a cluster of small islands that encircle the white sand bottom of a pristine lagoon. Over millennia, tidal currents have carved a deeper ring of blue around the shallower middle. The southernmost islet—U-shaped with a small beach inside its curve—marks the end of this gorgeous, otherworldly anchorage. Colors are supersaturated. The sand bottom provides good holding ground.
I row to the beach. Three iguanas crawl from the foliage to greet me. I neglected to bring an offering so I’m grateful to read in the guide that they’re vegetarians.
Back aboard Blue Monk, I prepare a simple evening meal—chopped vegetables and rice—but I enjoy my hot supper way out here so far away from everything and everyone.
I light the kerosene lamp that illuminates my cabin and look over my chart to plan tomorrow’s route.
Dove Cay appears beneath my finger.
I remember Mike’s invitation.
The tiny island is right on my way and slightly off the path more frequently taken by yachtsmen—a perfect next stop.
After a half-day’s easy sail, I drop a hook in the seagrass next to Peapod with her waving maple leaf ensign. On shore, a charming Bahamian cottage stands behind a wooden dock among palm trees and mangroves.
Mike is pleased to see me. He invites me to stay a few days and introduces me to his son, Roy, an amiable, dark-haired man in his late twenties.
I enjoy meals with them, catch up on old times and attend to chores on the boat. Roy helps me work on my outboard motor. Most likely, some piece of dirt is clogging the fuel system and causing it to run rough. We accidentally drop the engine overboard while taking it off its mount, so after diving down to retrieve it, we end up having to tear it apart anyway to clear out the seawater.
I scrub three weeks worth of dirty laundry in a big galvanized tub with a washboard and sweet rainwater from the cistern under the house. Hermit crabs scatter as I walk the beach followed by two playful dogs. I string my hammock between two coconut palms and relax with a book and a pillow.
Mike shares news of misfortune. Betty took her own life a few months before my visit. He motions solemnly to a far corner of the island where she is buried in a secluded spot.
The water clears.
When we were in Miami, months passed before I even knew she was aboard. When I finally met her, she spoke only of fear—fear of the sound of anchor chains rattling, fear of the boat heeling over under sail. Betty hid in the small floating shelter her husband built, away from noise and disturbance, and still she was afraid. Mike carried her to this quiet and peaceful island, to a sanctuary where nothing threatened, where she could walk in the sunshine along a white beach shaded by coconut palms, listening to the chuckling of the waves, to a place where she could free her spirit from fear.
But we carry our demons with us. Behind her reflection in these peaceful waters, Betty saw only sharks, stinging jellyfish, and spiny, poisonous things. Having left the loud noises, bright lights, and angry people behind, she heard only imagined vitriol whispered by a cruel sea, carried on an ill wind and distorted by a troubled spirit. With nowhere else to run to quiet the howling torment, she fled in the last way she could.
Her body lies under the palms beneath a mound of coral rock and conch shells, consigned to this tranquil place. Perhaps her spirit can now celebrate freedom from fear and embrace a world of serenity and peace. There could be no more beautiful heaven.
Clamped securely to its mount on my transom, the outboard runs better—not perfect, but better. Good company and land underfoot have been restorative. The sand and coconut palms and crystal blue water are sublime.
But Dove Cay is only a stopping point, a temporary destination, a place to absorb the shock of the last passage, regain balance and prepare for another leg of a longer journey.
The morning is cool.
The wind is fair.
The sea beckons.
I lash my oars to the cabin top, haul the mainsail aloft and stow my sail covers. Anchors release their grip on sand and seagrass. I secure them on the bow.
Past the tip of the island, the wind increases.
Blue Monk heels and accelerates.
Sailing alone into the unknown, across shallow waters hiding corals and currents, I too, am afraid.
It is the price I pay to feel alive.