First Stop, Bimini
We pulled up to the Customs dock and Bill went in with our passports to fill out paperwork. The procedure was that the skipper brought in the papers for all the crew and passengers while they stayed on the boat. In other words, I stayed alone on the boat.
As he walked away I looked at the tossed-around mess that was the cutty cabin. Bill had told me ahead of time that the one bag I was permitted must be zipped when we were underway. The way he explained was this: "Think of a cup of dice." He wasn't kidding. The waterskis had bounced out of the leatherette shelf, cushions were jumbled on the floor, and our bags were sideways or upside down. An unzipped bag would have been an empty bag.
The ocean spray had soaked my hair and clothes. I tried to comb the knots out of my wet tangled hair while I waited for Bill to return.
"You come from the States in that?" A skinny black guy was perched on the edge of the dock. "How was the ride?"
"Bumpy," I said. I was straining to understand his accent. "Do you live on that boat?" I asked. Docked near us was a large fishing boat, its aft deck crowded with cages. "What's in the cages?"
"Cages?" He fidgeted his leg while he talked. I pointed at the big boat. "On your deck? The wire cages?" His eye followed my gesture. "Oh, de're for fish," he said. Fish? In wire cages? Oh, traps -- do they just drop traps at the reefs to catch fish? I knew I had a lot to learn about the water, but sometimes the depth of my ignorance is overwhelming.
The visitor introduced himself as Samuel and said he wanted us to know that people in Bimini were friendly, that Bimini was a friendly place, and that we should tell all our friends that Bimini is a friendly place. Soon Samuel left and a series of visitors stopped by. All male. Every one asked me if I was married. I was starting to wish Bill would get back. He'd been gone awhile and it was dark now. Samuel said something about Customs being closed, but if Customs was closed then where was Bill? Finally I saw his tall figure ambling out of the large pink Customs building towards the boat. He came down, got the registration number of my gun, and disappeared back into Customs.
I'd brought a gun with me because we'd been warned about pirates. We heard that the west coast of Andros was particularly dangerous. We'd read that one should never allow a stranger onboard, and that one should be cautious of allowing vessels to approach, even if the vessel is responding to your distress signal. So I'd brought my Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum and a box of ammo. Bringing a gun into the Bahamas is no problem, as long as it can be locked up and it remains onboard at all times.
After a few more minutes Bill re-appeared and, on Samuel's advice we moved the boat a few yards down and tied up at a restaurant with an outdoor patio and dock. The building was a bright blue two-story block with the words, 'Fisherman's Paradise,' painted on the side. We tied up and went in.
That first night, we went inside exhausted and famished. The long day of slamming and fighting our way across the Gulf Stream, much longer than we'd expected, had taken it out of us. We dragged ourselves into the dark restaurant, hoping that we weren't too early or too late for dinner. The Fisherman's Paradise had an outdoor deck with tables, then an indoor restaurant area, and then one step up was a bar with a disco booth, a small dance floor, and a number of small tables. The ceiling and the walls were decorated with plastic forms, seventies' versions of tin ceilings I suppose. On the wall behind the bar was a poster advertising Night Train Express. I had been in many dive bars in my life but never had I seen any bar proudly display a poster advertising Night Train.
There were two other patrons and a barmaid in the Fisherman's Paradise. We ordered drinks and hit the bathrooms. Over the next two weeks I would take every opportunity to use a bathroom on land, and over the next two weeks I saw a lot of dirty broken toilets. This one was a ladies' room with two toilets side by side, and no dividers. The sinks were inches away from one of the toilets. When this place was busy, I imagined that bathrooms must be quite a scene.
Back out in the restaurant we looked over menus and lit the cigar that Bill had brought, passing it back and forth in silence with our arms draped across each other's shoulders. I was exhausted and exhilarated, which left me able to sit upright but that was about all. Our dinner came; conch fritters, broiled grouper, and native peas and rice. I had heard a lot about the Bahamas but no one ever mentioned that the food is fantastic. Especially if you like fish. After a few drinks we started talking to two men at the far end of the bar. Soon Bill was bringing charts out of the boat and opening them up on the bar, and the two men were pointing at certain areas and telling him they were good routes or bad routes. I stayed in my seat, a few stools up. The barmaid sat near me and chatted a little, but I had a hard time hearing her soft heavily-accented voice over the fuzzy James Brown cranking through the sound system.
After dinner I started fading fast. Bill went out the cutty cabin before me; by the time I got there he'd set up the bed and and stretched sheets and blankets over the cushions. I had been in the cutty before, but never when it was arranged as a bed. It was surprisingly roomy and comfortable, and going to sleep to the slight rocking of the water was a continuous reminder that I was someplace different, separated from the mundane and tedious details of my life; free . Bill and I fell asleep together in a harmonious jumble of limbs.
In the morning we kicked open the cutty door and right at our feet was a blue, pink, and red tropical sunrise, complete with palm trees and pelicans in flight. We watched until the sun was a little higher in the sky before moving from the cutty out into the soft breezy day to check out the streets of Bimini. On the way we saw one of the men who we'd been talking to the night before and exchanged brief greetings. "See you at lunch?" he asked.
There's not a lot to Bimini. Basically it's a bumpy street with several taverns and a few stores. The street is narrow with a little sand for a shoulder. Cars are common, driving down the middle of the road taking right of way over pedestrians. Along the street, the stucco or wood buildings are one and two stories with second-floor balconies shading first-story entrances. The open-air native market consists of a semi-circle of neatly painted wooden booths around a dirt courtyard, which was closed when we went by. People stroll down the street in twos and threes, not seeming to have any particular destination.
We saw one or two white faces that day, and many locals. The grown women wore stretch pants and loose tops, the teenage girls wore jeans and little tee-shirts. The men were in golf shirts, athletic shorts, and baseball caps. We stopped into a liquor store to compare prices to the States, a dive shop to get o-rings, a general store to price water (two dollars a gallon) and a hardware store for some screws to replace the ones that had jiggled out of the windshield framing on the bumpy crossing. Except the dive shop, which had little stock, the other stores were all crowded with dusty outdated merchandise, their counters manned by people who weren't particularly friendly or helpful. Back down the street, we had breakfast at the Fisherman's Paradise -- in Bill's words, it was surprisingly good for Spam.
We boated out to the wreck off South Bimini and dropped anchor. New to boating, I was nervous about leaving the boat anchored and moving away from it. I didn't quite believe it would still be there when I got back. We snorkeled around the wreck, which is an old cement ship that's mostly just a lot of rebar by now. It's broken into two pieces, the first is about three-quarters of the main ship, and close behind it the propellor housing juts out of the water at a distance of about 12 feet. It stands high above the water, the shreds of its sides graffitied with the same names and high school slogans that are common all over the USA.
Back on the boat we had lunch and watched another boat of snorkelers approach and snorkel through the wreck. Still pirate-conscious, I watched them suspiciously until it was clear that they were a bunch of partyers. We went back into Bimini Harbor and tested the shoals to the south. They were shallow enough to make Bill nervous. We got out of there and exited the harbor to the northwest.
The shoreline was a distant tumble of small pastel blocks, green spots and white strips. As we headed out I watched the depth gauge change from 8 to 13 to 27 to 46 to blank -- too deep to measure. We turned the engine off and drifted in the sun. Bill wanted to change the propellor, which involved getting into the water and manipulating the old prop off the engine and the fairly heavy and expensive replacement prop onto it. The water back at the dock where we had been tied up was only five feet at low tide and not more than ten feet at high. "Shouldn't you change this at the dock?" I asked. "What if you drop something?" The water was too deep to even register on the depth gauge; that meant it was at least 180 feet deep.
Bill waved his hand dismissively. "I won't," he said. He took off his clothes, snapped on a PFD, and jumped into the water like it was his natural environment. The whole trip I couldn't get over how easily he would jump into the deepest water without being afraid. I wish I could report here that I jumped in with him, but the truth is that deep water scares me. Which kind of adds a little twist to this whole account, doesn't it? I do plan to learn to be that fearless. But it may take a few more trips.
The rest of the afternoon passed like a dream. Bill did things on the boat while I sunbathed on the deck, luxuriating in the sun and the heat and the sensation of being far away from worries and problems. Towards sunset we returned to the harbor.
We were resting on the boat quietly, having a drink and working up our energy to go in to dinner. A female figure came clacking down the dock, stopping suddenly when she became aware of our presence. "Hello," we said.
"Hello. Did you come here in that?" The woman was in her forties, with short dark hair and white leather boots. We chatted for a few minutes and then another woman came to get her. We all talked; the womens' husbands were waiting for them at another bar and they asked us to join them. We locked up the cutty and followed Anne and Nancy along the dock and across a vacant lot to the back door of a bar called the Sand Bar.
The Sand Bar is a small one-room bar with sand instead of a floor, and with panties, bras, and business cards covering all the walls and hanging from the rafters. Instead of stools, there were tall benches for two, for two skinny people that is. We had a round with our new North American friends, and then all moved next door to the Fisherman's Paradise for dinner.
The six of us took the largest table in the dining room. During the lengthy wait for our meal, we ordered more drinks. The volume of discourse at the table became loud and raucous. After dinner, I moved to the bar with the other women and did shots of Nassau Royale, a vanilla liquer, with Aaron, the owner of the restaurant. After a while, I lost track of Bill and the other women, and stood outside the restaurant talking with Aaron.
Aaron had been one of the men at the bar the previous night, and he was the man who'd greeted us in the street earlier that day. He was a stocky man with a handsome brown face, who told me he'd lived in the States for ten years before returning home to Bimini. I asked him if he didn't get bored living in such a small place, and he said his family was in Bimini and being with them was the most important thing. His grandfather and father had owned the restaurant before him, and his father still had a say in the daily running of the business. This was a theme we were to hear frequently over the next two weeks. We went back inside and drank more. I wanted to excuse myself but was too dizzy for the niceties; I waited till he went to the mens' room and tried to slip out the back.
On my way out, I found Bill sitting at a table with three Americans, young tough-looking people with muscle shirts and gold chains. Balancing myself on the back of Bill's chair, I said hello, told Bill I'd be right back, and stumbled down the dock to the boat. Carefully sitting on the edge of the pier, I eased myself down into the boat and reached for the cutty door, eager to lay down and pass out.
The cutty was locked and the key wasn't in its regular place. Bill would have the key, I knew, but that would involve climbing up on the pier and facing the bright lights of the restaurant again. I decided that a nap in the captain's chair would do just fine.
Soon Bill came out to find me. He felt bad that I'd been sitting there, but I reminded him that I'd said I'd be right back. He unlocked the cutty and I crawled in and went to sleep immediately.
Some time later I awoke to the sound of men talking. Through the closed cutty door, the first voice was low and gutteral; I couldn't hear the words. The other voice was Bill's, who seemed to be responding to questions. I knew I was still drunk and confused, but I thought the tone of the conversation sounded unfriendly. I reached for my gun and ammo, and listened. Knowing I was too drunk to be handling loaded weapons, I dropped the bullets into the chamber but left it open, so I would have to consciously snap it into place before being able to shoot. A moment later the cutty door cracked open. "Bill, is everything okay?" I called. I was ready to snap the chamber shut and aim if a strange face appeared.
Bill stuck his head inside. "Yeh, fine," he said cheerfully. I fumbled with the blanket, trying to hide the gun from him; it was kind of embarrassing that I would be paranoid over nothing. But he caught me. "What are you doing?"
I dumped the bullets out of the gun and held them toward him. "I heard you talking to someone and I thought maybe there was a problem..." I said weakly, and hastily returned the gun to its holster, the bullets to their box, and pulled the blankets over myself. I expected Bill to be a little unnerved by my action, but to my surprise, he thanked me. "Thanks for watching my back," he said. "I really appreciate that."