My cousin Dan and I spend a night and the following day at Little Harbour. Here, the chain of out islands and the shallow Sea of Abaco end. Beyond this protected harbour, the coast of Great Abaco Cay turns southward into Northeast Providence Channel, an incursion of the deep North Atlantic that divides the Bahamas’ two major banks.
We leave before sundown, bound ninety miles south to Nassau, New Providence Island, passing between two arms of coral reef into rolling offshore swells. The wind is light and easterly—an easy broad reach. After sunset, the flashing beacon high on the rocks at Hole-in-the-Wall on the southeast point of Great Abaco provides a handy bearing point from which to gauge our progress south through the darkness.
Out in the big ocean waves, Dan is queasy. I’ve done little offshore sailing before, apart from crossing the Gulf Stream to get to these islands, but tonight I feel fine. I’m in charge of getting my boat and my cousin safely from Abaco to Nassau. There’s no “Sea Daddy” aboard this time; debilitating seasickness is not an option.
Who am I, some twenty-four-year-old kid, to be piloting a small boat on a moonless night, beyond sight of land? With a passenger who knows zilch nada about sailing?
We pass within a hundred feet of a northbound sailboat. I illuminate my sails with a searchlight to make sure they see me. The tossing motion of the other vessel’s masthead light relative to ours reveals the size of the seas as we fly comfortably southward, but Blue Monk, in spite of her small size, is perfectly content out here in the ocean swells. We wave at one another before each vessel disappears into the black void astern of the other.
“How ya holding up, Dan?” I ask.
“I’ve felt better, but I’ll be okay,” he tells me, forcing a weak smile and nibbling a soda cracker to calm his stomach.
The wind freshens. I turn Blue Monk into the wind. Dan takes the helm while I go on deck to tuck a reef in the mainsail.
The sea changes from black to gray to deepest blue.
New Providence Island rises gradually above the wave tops.
An immense cruise ship enters the harbour ahead of us. The thought of sharing a channel with a vessel that size is intimidating, but now I know where the entrance is.
At eight o’clock in the morning, Blue Monk rounds the breakwater into Nassau’s busy, industrial harbour. A police boat cruises around the entrance, its blue strobe light flashing officialdom. Passing the cruise ship docks, we make our way east through the busy port toward the arch of Potter’s Cay Bridge.
“Over here is where the resorts and casinos are,” I explain to Dan, gesturing at Paradise Island moving slowly by to port. “Paradise Island was originally named ‘Hog Cay’—probably a less-than-ideal name for marketing a vacation spot.” Dan chuckles at the incongruity. He’s already feeling better now that we’re out of the swells and inside the sheltered harbour.
Anchorages in Nassau Harbour consist of small groups of boats tucked in along the sides of a wide channel, protected from ocean swells by the lee of the islands but exposed to the constant wakes of passing powerboats, the booming bass of tourist barges dressed up in loosely piratical style, and a tide that rips one way or the other through the channel four times a day.
A wooden fishing smack tacks up the harbour against wind and current, its mainboom fashioned from a crooked tree branch. I’m sorry we didn’t get here in time to watch her navigate under the Paradise Island Bridge without an engine, but I’m grateful to get a glimpse of what this historic harbour looked like decades before. The voices of the dark fishermen working the lines on the ghost sloop are swallowed by the din of Nassau’s commerce and development.
Zebra Dun lies at anchor not far from the bridge on the north side of the harbour. John and Veronique wave at us from on deck.
I anchor up, row Dan over, and make introductions. Though I’ve been at the helm all night, I elect to accompany everyone ashore. Better, I think, to forgo a nap and force myself to return to a normal sleeping cycle.
My visit to Nassau is a blur of fatigue. Dan and I hike around town. We buy supplies. I purchase a new spear at a dive shop and some new music to listen to. I encounter a breadfruit tree and pick one of the strange cannonball-sized fruits. Street merchants charge me white man’s prices for vegetables and conch at the Straw Market under the big bridge. A steel drum plays for the tourists through a tinny amplifier. Coconuts, papayas, and fresh fish abound. Legless, clawless bodies of live landcrabs are stacked in crates waiting to be sold; I never knew they were edible. One of the vendors blows an impossibly long note on a conch shell trumpet. Cruise ship visitors cheer and offer tips. After a few hours, I have been offered all the T-shirts I care to be offered. Enough of Paradise’s hotdog stand.
We return home and tie a bucket behind the dinghy so the current can grab it, preventing the tender from beating into the hull of Blue Monk when the wind and tide pull the two vessels in
John and Vero sail off at first light the following day; she has a plane to meet in Georgetown in two weeks. Dan and I need another day of rest after our ninety-mile offshore passage. We wait until the following morning to head south to the Exuma Cays.
At dawn, as I fire up the engine and haul up my anchors, a familiar voice sings, “Ahoy, Blue Monk!” Two boats from Dinner Key Anchorage circle around me. Keith is here on Ritmo. Charlie is sailing his tiny blue sloop with no name. We are all headed south across the Yellow Banks. Our impromptu flotilla motors east under the bridge, past the rusting wreck of an old freighter adjacent to the southwest channel.
A single-engine seaplane takes off in the harbour, lifting off the water just before passing beneath Paradise Island Bridge. I look at Dan and laugh; try a stunt like that in the States and you’ll never fly again. Dan chuckles along with me. He’s from Colorado; he knows “Old West” when he sees it.
Blue Monk slowly leaves New Providence Island behind. The clanking of civilization fades upon our return to the clear, tranquil shallows of the Bahama Banks. “Hopefully,” I tell Dan, “the wind will fill in as the sun gets higher so I can shut down this noisy motor.”
The Exuma Cays lie forty miles southeast across the Yellow Banks—a day’s sail. The guidebook advises us to be vigilant and steer clear of coral heads, but we don’t see any particularly large ones.
The shallow water is clear and blue again. The bottom rolls lazily by beneath us.
The wind—already light—diminishes to an occasional puff.
Sand, sponges, corals, and grass patches meander by ever more slowly.
Well before the tops of the Exuma islands peek over the horizon, the wind dies altogether.
The sails hang limp.
The engine drones.
The sky is hazy and white.
We take down our clattering sails and motor across a sea of glass.
Dan spots an object in the distance—a sailboat motoring through the white zone where the sea blends with the sky, skating above its own rippling reflection, trailing a long, thin ribbon of wake. Sailing across an endless field of tidal currents, navigating with compasses and watches, it’s hard to tell which island is which by the shapes that appear on the horizon. Other sailors have electronic navigation equipment much more sophisticated than ours. Maybe this boat can give us an accurate position?
Our courses converge.
Dan recognizes John and Veronique on Zebra Dun before I do. Five miles west of the northern Exumas, we idle our engines and enjoy a gam on the Bahama Banks.
“Looks like some weather’s coming down,” says John as he waves his hand across the streaky sky. “We just left Allen’s Cay. We’re heading south to Norman’s Cay for better protection. Allen’s is a beautiful place but nowhere I want to be in a gale.”
The fleet presses on together.
After a few more hours of motoring, Blue Monk slips around the south side of Norman’s Cay to anchor in eight feet of clear water fifty feet from an old dock.
The sun descends. All hands are tired from the journey. We tie obligatory buckets to the sterns of our dinghies (a practice that becomes standard in this land of fast moving tidal currents) and retire beneath a shower of stars.
The anticipated cold front blows through. Though not as severe as the gale at Foote’s Cay, gusty winds cause our boats to strain at their anchor lines. When the wind is at odds with the tidal current, Blue Monk rolls awkwardly. I’m grateful for the protection of the island’s lee; it must be rough out on the banks.
Norman’s Cay is the site of a former hotel and resort that became a haven for drug smugglers until the Bahamian defense force shot it (and I assume, the smugglers) full of holes. A ditched DC-3 cargo plane sits on a shoal in the center of the harbour, largely exposed at low tide. Bent propellers tell of the silver bird’s final landing on the soft seagrass. We snorkel around coral-encrusted engines and landing gear, hunting for fish. In the cockpit of the wrecked plane, I mug for a photo. Dan strikes a surfer’s pose atop the fuselage.
We remain at Norman’s Cay for four days while the wind continues to blow.
Beyond a dilapidated dock, weathered steps lead up a hill to an old hotel. I lift a trap door in the porch and discover a cistern full of sweet rainwater beneath it—treasure. Nassau water tastes like a waste product from a frog breeding program. I filled a few jugs with the ghastly stuff as a precaution before leaving New Providence but opted to sail south with my main tank almost empty in hope of finding anything better.
After discovering the cistern, I pump my Nassau water into the sea (with apologies to the fish) and top off my tanks with the good stuff. Hauling jugs down the stairs, across the dock and out to the boat is hard work. When we’re finished, as a reward for our efforts, we lower our bucket-on-a-rope through the hole in the porch once more to enjoy a freshwater shower and shampoo.
The wind clocks around to the east and continues to blow hard, but the sky is clear; the days are beautiful. At slack tide, we prowl the harbour for conch, climb and dive on the wreck of the airplane, row over to the tiny islets adjacent to Norman’s Cay, and in the evenings, sit on deck playing music and telling sea stories.
I snap a photograph of John and Vero. They are two comic book heroes, standing next to a palm tree on a postcard-perfect tropical islet. The wind blows Vero’s hair and skirt. John smiles with his bronze chest bared to the sun. They glow with strength, power, and vitality.
The winter wind continues unabated.
“I have to get Dan back to Nassau,” I explain to John. “His plane leaves the day after tomorrow.”
“I have the same problem,” he responds. “I need to deliver Vero to Georgetown to catch her plane. I’m running out of days, myself; we have to get out of here. Keith and Charlie are going to accompany me south in the morning.”
“I don’t mind admitting I’m scared to head back to Nassau with the wind howling like this,” I confess to John. “It must be rough out there.”
He thinks silently for a moment and looks at me paternally.
“I hate to throw a cliché at you, but if you weren’t scared I’d be worried about you.”
At dawn, our four boats round the southern tip of Norman’s Cay out into the waves and wind.
My three companions head south.
I head northwest.
It will be a long time and many miles before I see any of them again.
On the way back to Nassau, the wind is behind us all the way, a rowdy downhill run. Our course is true. The trees of New Providence rise on the horizon before us just where they’re supposed to. Blue Monk shoots beneath the bridge under wind power to drop anchor off the Nassau police station at sundown, exactly where we were moored a week before.
The next morning, I hail a taxi on the VHF.
Cousin Dan returns to the Rocky Mountains.
I linger a few days in Nassau to meet up with some of the teachers from the Abaco Mission who fly down to join friends on holiday. For the weekend, it’s me and five beautiful young women knocking around Nassau town, exploring Fort Charlotte and swimming off the beach on the ocean side of Paradise Island.
A conch boat anchors close to Blue Monk—just an old fiberglass powerboat. Once somebody’s dream, she’s now an ugly hulk loaded high with seaweed-covered shells. Downwind of it, the stench is overpowering. The fishermen must have seen me rowing with my entourage. “Hey, mon. Set me up,” they call as I row by.
“They all flew home,” I explain. “Sorry. Maybe next time.”
I’m grateful to have been spared an uncomfortable diplomatic exercise by the ladies’ departure, but it’s not like I got “set up” either. I’m a freak who lives alone on a tiny sailboat. They’re all going home to jobs, boyfriends, and grad school.
I breathe and sigh. “Loneliness is the cost of living,” suggests my inner voice; time to get on with my journey.
I bake whole grain bread in my oven the night before departing. I have no autopilot; keeping good bread aboard makes it easy to prepare and consume mid-day sandwiches without abandoning the helm.
In the morning, I quietly extract my anchors from the Nassau Harbour mud, motor under the Paradise Island Bridge, and aim my bow southeast toward the Exuma Cays.
The breeze is moderate—just right.
I turn off the engine, adjust my compass course, and trim my sails.
Who am I, some twenty-four-year-old kid, to be piloting a small boat alone, beyond sight of land, across the Bahama Banks?
I don’t know.
I just am.
The wrecked plane at Norman’s Cay – 1989 (inset – recent photo)
The author in the cockpit at low tide