My Sailing Experience Through the Bahamas

Next morning I could see no sign of the settlement on the shore as recorded on the chart, so I ran down the coast under a genoa, to enter the lagoon and anchor nearly a mile offshore, for there was little water under the keel. A fisherman soon came off and he towed me ashore in the dinghy to check in with the commissioner, a Long Islander. He then took me to his house for a conch supper with his family.

It was very late and quite dark when I walked the mile down to the small harbour with its breakwater in ruins since the last hurricane, and began to row off to Dawn Star. After twenty minutes I was completely lost, and did not really know how I was heading, when I heard a yell as my fisherman friend appeared in his lugsail craft. He had seen the dinghy being blown to leeward by the hard wind and came after me, giving me a tow back. Henceforth, in these open lagoon anchorages, I always insisted on returning aboard before dark; despite the yacht’s white topsides, the dinghy was so low it was quite impossible to see her.

A guide-book records that there is plenty of accommodation for a tourist at Abraham’s Bay and that there is a weekly mailboat. However, I can only say that there is plenty of room, tens of square miles, on which to pitch a tent, and with regard to the latter statement, the mailboat came in for a week while I was there; she had taken a fortnight to come from Nassau, after lying there for a week, so the round voyage is six weeks.

About 750 people live on this semi-desert island of Mayaguana and they see a yacht call about every six weeks in the season; there is no electric power, but a radio operator can start a small engine and so transmit direct to Nassau.

I learnt from Mr Taylor, the commissioner, that the settlement at the eastern end of the island had been abandoned three or four years previously, and I could see from the shells of houses that the main settlement at Abraham’s Bay had been devastated when the hurricane went through in 1960; a few new buildings had been built. To the west was a vast white concrete structure, which was the United States missile base.

Mr Taylor’s official truck had long since broken down, so his driver and I got down to work one morning, and at least made it go; he was also having trouble with his Land-Rover.

While the midwife dressed my various wounds which had turned septic, she told me that the small hospital rarely had a patient; as there were virtually no visitors, no disease came to the island.

A ten-ton yacht sailed in one afternoon, and with the commissioner, I learnt that its engine had failed a fortnight earlier. She was bound for St Thomas from Fort Lauderdale, and this was disastrous for the charterer, an American, as he could no longer have his bourbon on the rocks; all their fresh food had gone bad when the refrigerator packed in without electric power. It was the lifelong ambition of this wealthy gentleman to sail to St Thomas, even though they would have to flog to windward in that vile muck day after day for weeks on end. The owner and his wife were delighted to hear that there was an engineer in the harbour even though there was no mechanic ashore.

The next morning he dropped his wife at the pier and came over to Dawn Star in his motorized Boston Whaler for a coffee and rum, and I agreed to try to put his engine right. Repairing aboard his yacht I first asked him if he had checked his gasolene tank and being assured that there was plenty of petrol, started work on the engine, after spending the first three-quarters of an hour unscrewing all the furniture in order to get to it. I soon discovered that the trouble was lack of gas, and despite the owner’s protestations and forcible restraint at first, opened up the tank, situated under a bunk in the fo’c’sle with yards of piping and joints connecting it to the engine aft. No gasolene ! Quickly filling it from a jerrycan, I had the engine running a few minutes later and we settled down to rum while the battery went on charge.

The owner then went ashore to collect his wife and more gas, of which the commissioner obtained over a barrel for him, it being nearly 500 miles to San Juan.

I was able to collect a few good shells from the island while on a long walk along the foreshore, and it amused me when some natives went searching and brought me similar ones in the hope that I might buy them! The island is a swampy desert of coral and mangroves, very dull. Back aboard, I went down with flu, so sweated it out for twenty-four hours. I was fascinated to see a large turtle swimming round the yacht for a half-hour one afternoon.

I do not know whether it was to prove that they really had a light or whether there was some celebration, but on my last night the hurricane light on the end of the broken-down mole was actually lit. Certainly, no ship could ever hope to enter the lagoon in the dark, for there are no leading lights through the pass.

Utterly sick of corkscrewing for the past week, I weighed at five in the morning, motoring out towards the break in the reef with the intention of making sail in the open sea; just as I was entering the passage the engine spluttered and stopped! Without pausing a second I let the anchor go and the cable run, bringing up twenty feet from the edge of the reef The engine is a single cylinder two-stroke 4-h.p. Stuart Turner, and never has an oiled-up plug been changed so fast; I was glad when I got into open water again.

Navigation through the Bahamas has to be done very largely by eye, and I soon learnt to read the colours of deep and shoal waters, of sand and weed bottoms, and of reefs and coral heads. With the sun ahead, these are indistinguishable, but once it is abeam navigation is fairly easy, and even more so the higher the helmsman or lookout is stationed. To sail over the Bahama banks at night is utter folly. For the single-hander it is especially tiring having to manage the ship, prepare food and be constantly on the lookout ahead when going over the banks, particularly as the highest I could get was by standing on the cockpit seats where I could still retain immediate control of the helm. For this reason I decided to go up the windward chain of islands, which lie in deep water, and not up through the Exuma Cays to Nassau.

Charts are only of general interest giving the position of the real islands and they have to be treated with suspicion. There are numerous cautions, the most general being ‘Unsurveyed but many coral heads known to exist’, over large areas.

I had no echo sounder aboard, but before long became quite adept at heaving the lead, provided the speed was not over four knots. Many times I became suspicious, and immediately stopped the yacht by luffing up while I went forward to stand on the boom to gain additional height. To have driven on to a reef or coral head would more than likely have brought an end. The ‘out islands’ are very sparsely populated, and the settlements of the few natives on the larger islands are about ten miles apart. While I had every assistance imaginable from them, their resources are extremely limited, even as to the barest necessities of life. The islands and cays are all very low-lying, and often they came into sight, with my height of eye, at only five and six miles’ range.

I found that the best pilot for these waters was A Yachtsman’s Guide to the Bahamas. Compiled by Harry Ethridge and Thomas Waddington, it is published by Tropic Isle Publishers, Inc. and is really a bible of all the good and bad anchorages; the marinas, stores, and hotels, and even the type of facility a yachtsman might expect to find. Unfortunately I found it impossible to get a copy down south at Antigua or in the Virgin Islands. Of course, it is readily available in Nassau, but I had to get there! Ron Roberts had very kindly given me his old edition when I went aboard Haida See in Road Town, Tortola.

Just to the north of west lay the French or Plana Cays, two low-lying uninhabited islands used by the natives as an overnight anchorage. They warned me against going ashore here as the islands are overrun by a type of hare which is vicious, and should it be necessary to land for any reason, I was advised to arm myself with a stout stick. There is a convenient shallow ledge in the lee of the western isle and I anchored here on a calm sea, close to the beach; the island being so low, I had little sleep for the wind screamed through the rigging all night. I saw no sign of life apart from the soaring birds.

Off soon after dawn, I sailed for Acklins Island and on to Crooked Island Passage, where I had to work round the reef and outlying crops of coral. A fair-sized harbour is formed here by the reefs, though none of more than a foot above sea level; the calm, though windy, area inside is called Portland Harbour. Alas, no ships were anchored, and I think it would be of historical and academic interest to learn when the last one did! Rounding the last corner in the failing light, I turned east into soundings, passing 200 yards south of the large white concrete lighthouse, and anchored off the Marine Farm which was situated behind a clump of casuarina trees; the deserted buildings appeared just like the sketch in The Yachtsman’s Guide.

Shortly after ten the next morning two fishermen came alongside in their roughly constructed boat, and I learnt to my surprise that there was a quay round the corner a mile away, serving Landrail Point settlement; I arranged to meet them there at r 400 to see about fresh provisions. Going alongside was dangerous, as there was a two-foot scend and the space to manoeuvre behind a protecting reef very restricted. Half the village appeared; though they have American yachts every fortnight or so a British yacht had not called for over three years, according to Earle Scavella, one of the fishermen.

I had not been able to obtain any provisions for three weeks, and for once out here the promises were true. A truck was waiting for me and, though it had no windscreen and I had to hold the door shut, it had four wheels and went! First we filled up my water cans from a well and then I obtained oranges and grapefruit by simply picking them off the trees; fresh eggs appeared and even bread! It was apparent that this small community of around two hundred people was quite prosperous with their small electric-light plants and refrigerators, but they regretted that they could not spare me any gasolene unless I was in desperate straits. The price of all my provisions was very fair, and in contrast to the other islands, no one drinks rum, for they are all Seventh Day Adventists. It was thus a convenient moment for me to entertain a few of these very friendly and helpful people to fruit juice, from cans I was personally unable to use because of the sugar content. Life in the area has declined considerably since before the last war when liners used to call with tourists from Europe, and the Hamburg-America Line ran a ship here every week. I spent the night back off the Marine Farm in two fathoms of water.

On the anniversary of my departure from Chatham, on May 5th, I entered Clarence Town Harbour, Long Island. This harbour is on the windward side of the island, and protection is provided by a string of barren cays, but as these are low-lying the entrance is very difficult to see against the background. When I got inside I found numerous reefs, while I shuddered at the sight of the numerous coral heads everywhere. Somehow I escaped these dangers and anchored 200 yards off the quay which was on a dead lee with one and a half miles’ fetch to windward. Under these conditions I did not lower the dinghy; it would have been easy to go ashore, but I doubt whether I could have rowed back.

From the yacht there appeared to be a battle of ‘one-upmanship’ going on between the two churches; considering the population – and I saw only two people ashore – I wondered whether the settlement really warranted a large white structure with two towers and a graceful stairway leading up and in; while a hundred yards away the Anglican church ran to two tall spires. They made good landmarks.

After dining on haggis that evening I spent a restless night with the yacht pitching heavily to a grinding anchor cable.

There was a bad sea until I had cleared soundings and, heading north-north-east, sailed the 32 miles to Rum Cay, so named after a certain trading vessel had run ashore there. The lagoon was fairly quiet, though the wind quite strong because the anchorage is 600 yards off the settlement on account of shoaling waters.

On going ashore I found that the Government had provided employment for the people by paying them to build roads of coral and sand; extending for about a half mile in all, they were a fine monument to man’s industry, for there is no vehicular traffic and I did not even see a wheelbarrow! I learnt from Mrs Wilson, a dark lady who runs a small store dealing mainly in rum, that the population had dwindled from over 500 to a mere 86, 23 of whom were children.

I walked past the wooden houses with their shutters up and the undergrowth beginning to work through the flooring of their extensive verandas, abandoned by people who had gone to Nassau for work. In the country I saw the fields, or rather divided-up plots of land, from which people had scratched a living between the outcrops of rock and stone; now deserts of cactus and thorn. None of the five churches is abandoned as yet, for the Sunday service is held in each in turn in an attempt to keep alive a memory of the past. Land is very cheap and Mrs Wilson and her husband had started to export copra again; they had also introduced pineapple-growing, finding the plant did well on this island; another man was breeding goats. The vast salt-pans were again a monument, never having been repaired and restarted since the dyke was breached in several places as long ago as 1926.

The whole settlement had the air of a deserted village and I wondered how long the schoolmaster, Mr Hepburn, now aged over 70, would continue at his work.

To improve trade, I bought a bottle of rum and spent an hour sharing most of it with Mrs Wilson in her small house, the walls of every room covered with religious scenes of Saints and Apostles looking down at us from every angle. The fact that one of her two children had fallen sound asleep and could not be roused did not bother her; she shrugged her shoulders when I pointed to the empty aspirin bottle, and said ‘There were only six!’ The rain pelted down all day, and as I left her to row off at dusk, she gave me two small loaves of bread and hoped I would enjoy my supper. Back aboard I found two fish, baked to perfection and wrapped in paper to keep them hot, in one of my bags. Such are these ‘out island’ natives.

San Salvador Island lay right up to windward, and though I did want to see where Columbus had landed in the New World, having come from his port of departure, San Sebastian, Gomera, in the Old, I could not face the beat to windward in the broad Atlantic.

Conception Island with its extensive surrounding reefs was well round on the starboard quarter when I sighted Cat Island through the periodic rain showers, and after doubling Devil’s Point turned for The Bight as darkness descended; when the wind died to an air I started the engine in the hope of getting in to anchor off the settlement. However, the sun beat me, so I went offshore and lay a-hull well clear of soundings, stopping the engine for peace and turning on the radio only to listen to a constant stream of propaganda being poured out from the USA, Cuba, and Haiti. The Bible-punchers always ended their programs with instructions to send only one United States dollar to a P.O. Box in an American city, whereupon the senders would receive in return a portrait of their favourite saint.

After periodic dozing through the night I found myself at dawn one mile east of Hawksnest Point, so again I started the engine and made over to anchor off the small concrete pier at The Bight. A few moments later the heavens opened and for an hour visibility was no more than a hundred yards as the rain lashed down in frequent squalls; but these never last long, and I paddled the dinghy ashore to call on the commissioner. The old tarmacadam road, which lay behind the swaying casuarina trees along the foreshore, was pot holed as an epitaph to a former age of prosperity. I crossed it and climbed the steps up to the commissioner’s office where we had a long yarn and discussed the proposals for tourism. The island was buzzing as work had begun on erecting a guest house, with accommodation for three couples!

Constable Johnson asked for my Transire Note and only batted one eye when I told him it was back aboard as I could not be bothered with silly bits of paper when sailing between British islands. Again, it was the same story as Rum Cay, and I walked through the straggling deserted village where half the houses lay derelict.
In the evening I set about dressing the various wounds on my shins, head, and back; they had become infected during the previous weeks from bashes received aboard by being flung about, and scratches and . tears from cactus and thorns ashore. The lack of real sleep, and of freedom from worry about dragging in the night, was getting me down; as an encouragement to get on, I had read in The Yachtsman’s Guide that there was a resident doctor in Eleuthera. To relieve the pain my ever-increasing daily dose of aspirin had reached twenty-five tablets, the codeine long since used up.

That night the hurricane lamp on the end of the pier was lit by a small boy at sunset; I could not but feel that it had been done especially for me and that my scathing remarks earlier on at its non-appearance the night before had gone home.

The next night I anchored a mile south of Little San Salvador Island on an absolutely calm sea, being able to drop the anchor on sand clear of weed. Something, probably intuition, woke me at 01:00 and I found an easterly breeze had got up. There is a low-power electric light on the point so I got under way round it for the southern end of Eleuthera, going through The Cut, and as the wind headed me, motored for three and a half hours across Rock Sound to the anchorage off the township of this first of several American millionaires’ paradises.

On rowing ashore, a man asked me for five cents per foot per night for using the dock; he was quite taken aback when I informed him that I had no intention of so doing as I had a perfectly good dinghy.

I was soon to learn that American yachts do not normally carry dinghies and that they always like to go alongside.

In the long hike of hundreds of miles from the south-east up the chain, Eleuthera was the last island before reaching New Providence, and the nearer I drew to Nassau the more apparent were the outward signs of tourism geared to the American market. There was even a small supermarket where I was able to purchase five pork chops weighing I! pounds and I was so avid for fresh meat, my first for six weeks, that I ate the lot that evening.

The doctor’s residence lay atop a short rise and I enjoyed a yarn with Dr Kerr and his wife; after a quick going over he told me simply that he could do virtually nothing except to advise me to make for Nassau and Princess Margaret Hospital with all dispatch, adding that I might last about another week to ten days at my present rate of deterioration.

With his words ringing in my ears, I sailed on Friday May 13th for Governor’s Harbour, anchoring on the north side of Cupid Cay, now connected to the land by a causeway. Cupid Cay was the original settlement of the Eleutheran Adventurers, who were the first settlers to arrive from England. The architecture of the houses was early colonial with Georgian influence, and the township must have been very attractive before a hurricane had blazed a trail of devastation four months earlier. Mrs Helweg-Larsen, F.R.G.S., keeps a souvenir shop, and like myself, collected tropical seashells; we did some swopping before crossing over to the Buccaneer Club to meet the commanding officer of the United States Naval Facility, Commander Sam Rubel, and also Miss Bahamas and other lovelies. That night the Nichollses entertained me to a dinner of fried chicken in their bungalow, which has a fine view over the harbour.

Sailing north, two swimmers boarded Dawn Star off a point and, as I neared the US Facility, two boatloads of officers put off from the shore to greet me, bringing their wives and baskets of food and drink for a party. With the Press cameras clicking away, I was presented with the crest of their establishment, an event which was to have a sequel one week later.

That night I entered the fabulous Hatchett Bay.
The Pond is entered between low heads only go feet wide for 150 yards; it was quite dark, but being near civilization now, two red lights in line showed me the way in. It then took me another hour to find my way round to the dock as I was confused by the lights of various buildings.

In the morning I saw the foreshore littered with the wreckage of six yachts as a result of the last hurricane; the dock was being completely rebuilt.

Chickens and pineapples were cheap at the Hatchett Bay Company’s store in the settlement of Alice Town. Whether it was the new diet or the old food turned sour I never found out, but I was violently ill in the evening, shivering dreadfully before I suddenly passed out; I regained consciousness three hours later but only felt able to sip some rum.

Time was running out fast, so before dawn I had weighed and just as I went out of The Pond a 150-ton motor merchantman began to make an approach. Her master had had this problem before, for his helm went hard over with engine full astern; I could not even stop for fear of losing steerage way, and I was certainly unable to turn round.

The wind had fallen light, so I motored for hours on a glassy sea across the Bank, the bottom showing up clearly under four fathoms. After a while no land was visible except when I gained height by standing on the boom.

It was 17:00 as I entered Nassau from the eastern end, and thankfully saw the burgee of the Royal Naval Sailing Association flying over Northern Light with James and Anne Griffin standing on deck; I knew I would be in safe hands at last, and after supper repaired aboard to discuss my immediate future.

With the assistance of an American yachtsman, I shifted berth the next morning down to East Bay and anchored off the Pan American building where he rowed me ashore after locking up the yacht. Then in easy stages with frequent stops for rum and many aspirins to ease the pain we walked to the Princess Margaret Hospital.
Twenty minutes later I collapsed on a bed in a ward and fell asleep.

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