A Few Peaceful Days in the Harbour Islands
We headed northeast making good time. Nassau had made me paranoid and I frequently checked behind us to make sure we weren't being pursued. Fifteen miles from Royal Island we turned off the engine and took a break. Bill jumped in for a swim, taking a towel to wipe down the bottom of the boat, while I drank a soda and read in the sun. I'd been standing during the ride, using the new skill that Bill had taught me of balancing on the moving boat, and now I was pretty stiff in the knees.
Bill was just climbing back into boat when I heard a noise to the back. I looked and saw nothing. I turned back to my book and heard the noise again. This time I saw -- only a few yards from the boat a very large dolphin was slipping back into the water. "Look!" I called to Bill. We watched together as the dolphin moved in a circle around the boat. He was so close we could see the large scars that criss-crossed his sides, probably from fishing line. Bill wanted to get into the water with it, but I was nervous. The dolphin's size and bold approach didn't seem normal behavior. I'd heard about renegade sharks, unusually aggressive, and wondered if there was such a thing as a renegade dolphin. Bill picked up on my anxiety and stayed in the boat.
We were heading for a wreck off Royal Island because we had GPS coordinates for it, and from there we would be able to sight-navigate to Dunmore Town, a few islands away. The wreck was easily spotted. As soon as we saw it, the depth gauge began to register a steep change. We went from water too deep to measure to thirteen feet in only a few minutes, travelling about twenty-five miles an hour. We putted over to see the wreck more closely, and then headed off toward Royal Island. The area was rife with coralheads but the shallow draft of the Crownline enabled us to move easily through them. We slowly picked our way, enjoying the sun and the clear green water. A large boat came from behind and quickly overtook us. It was moving fast and we decided to slip in behind it and let it break up the water for us. We would make better time and get better gas mileage. We hailed them on the VHF to let them know we were harmless and fell in behind them.
We could hear them on our radio as they called ahead to the port of Spanish Wells to let the pilot they'd hired know they were there. They came to a halt as they waited for him. After a while a little Boston Whaler appeared and the pilot went onboard, his Boston Whaler now tied to the stern of the yacht next to the yacht's tender.
This is getting to be quite a convoy, I thought, as we all slowly moved forward to enter the narrow winding channel that led through Spanish Wells. I'd heard that there wasn't much in the town, and the one person who'd given me specific recommendations on worthwhile spots in the Bahamas had specifically said, "Don't go to Spanish Wells. Boring." From the water, it seemed to be a clean little town with an active commercial harbor.
Past Spanish Wells our speed remained low as the yacht in front of us carefully wound between the extensive coralheads known as the Devil's Backbone. Once again, we were unthreatened by the shallow clearance and at one point, just to kill time, Bill played the boat in a fast tight circle that we laughed about later when we looked at its imprint on the GPS track.
We were passing a series of small beaches, beaches we'd been told had pink sand. It was a little pink, if you squinted. The terrain here was wilder than we'd seen previously. Short rock cliffs appeared with regularity, and the tops of the trees seemed like they'd been tumbled by wind. Small beaches were common, and occasionally we would see one occupied by a solitary person, or by a small group. On one beach I saw a large black dog napping on the top of the surfline. It was the first dog I'd seen in a long time, but not to be the last.
We spotted Governor's Island and decided to move on ahead of the yacht. Radioing thanks, we cut to the side and zipped into the marina.
We'd read good things about this marina and this town in the Guide and pulled in looking forward eating lunch and getting clean. The marina was busy with large boats; except for some sailboats, the yachts averaged fifty or sixty feet. We didn't want to occupy a whole slip with our small boat, so we tied up in a slip behind a Boston Whaler, carefully leaving room for it to get out.
We went up to the open-air bar and discovered we were too late for lunch. We waited for the dockmaster to make arrangements to stay overnight. There were a few other people in the bar, sitting quietly over beers not speaking. A short weathered white man came in with a large chocolate retriever padding behind him. The bartender greeted him enthusiastically and found a treat for the dog. Holding the treat in the air, the bartender held up three fingers. The dog barked three times. Another treat appeared and five fingers were held up. Five excited barks came from the dog. A counting dog. Bill and I deduced that only a man travelling on a sailboat would have the time to teach a dog to count.
The dockmaster arrived, a tall young man with a bright smile and warm brown eyes. He never looked at us directly. "Yes, I saw you come in," he said. "You're in the blue and white tender?"
Bill's hand flew to his heart. He was stricken that his boat had been mistaken for a tender. I jumped in, laughing. "It's not a tender, it's our home!"
The dockmaster told us to leave the boat where it was, and when we asked the fee he said not to worry about it. In a business that charges by the foot Bill's boat just wasn't worth the paperwork, we supposed.
We whiled away the short remainder of the afternoon with naps in the sun. We were getting ready to go to dinner when the family staying on the yacht next to us came down the pier and started a conversation with the now-familiar, "Did you come from the States on that?" It turned out that the Boston Whaler we'd docked behind was their tender. They recommended some beaches and dive sites, and told us that the following day Dunmore Town was having Junkanoo, a parade and street party that we shouldn't miss. We thanked them and climbed onto the dock to seek out dinner.
The family had decorated their slip pilings with electric Christmas decorations; on one was a small plastic Christmas tree with ping-pong ball eyes that lit up green when a person passed, while its mouth opened and said, "Ho ho ho!." The next piling had a felt santa head on it that played 'Merry Christmas' in a tinny wheedle when activated. Boats were decorated to varying degrees; one was strung with lights everywhere, and on its deck a large wireframe reindeer was wound completely with white bulbs. Walking toward us on the dock was a dachsund wearing a red-and-green sweater and a matching hat.
We knew by now that opening and closing times in the Bahamas were just rough guesses, so it was no surprise that the restaurants weren't open yet. We wandered across the island, walking slowly up a steep street lined with one-story peaked-roof houses in various conditions, some new and clean, and some shabby and cluttered. We were frequently passed by cars, trucks, and golf carts. Raucous music blared from somewhere down the street. In a nearby yard a rooster crowed. The occasional bark of a dog carried through the night air. We passed a small graveyard with a large crypt, and then another graveyard, this one larger and dotted with simple cross-shaped markers of stone or wood.
Heading down a hill, we were accosted by three small boys armed with water guns. Before they could strike, a woman's voice wafted out of the open front door of the house behind them, calling them sharply in to dinner. We continued down the street to the Tingum Village Native Restaurant and Hotel, where we had one of the best meals either of us had ever had.
In the morning Bill filled the scuba tanks at the marina's on-site dive shop and we headed out for some diving. Bill tried to navigate us through a maze of coralheads but it became impassable and we had to back out in reverse gear. Moving into deeper water, we selected a dive site and put on our gear.
The underwater landscape was a vast field of shallow troughs and rises. Fish abounded in a wide variety. The current was strong. As we swam into it Bill held my hand. We crossed several ridges and came to a stop on a sandy bottom. Remaining still, the reef in front of us was quickly obscured by the mounting number of fish. We watched, then moved to a different coralhead and did the same thing again.
At the end of the dive I clung to the drift line while Bill exited first so that he could help me with my weight belt. We headed back toward Dunmore Town by continuing around the island opposite from how we'd come, through Whale Point. We were contemplating an approach through the narrow channel when a small boat cut in front of us and zipped in between the points of land. We fell in behind and followed at a somewhat slower pace. On the approach to the marina, two small dolphin came straight at the boat and then appeared on the side. We watched them for a moment till they dove from sight.
Valentine's Marina, Dunmore Town
From our slip back at the marina we could see the preparations for Junkanoo on the narrow main road that serves as the main boulevard of Dunmore Town. Bill thought the laundromat would be open; I thought closed for the holiday. We shoved all of our laundry, which by now was more than a little ripe, into pillowcases and headed down the hill to the laundromat.
As we approached the City Dock a crowd of tourists was forming in lines bordering the street. As we walked by them with our rank stuffed pillowcases, one man called out, "Brought your own bed?"
The laundromat was closing just as we arrived, an hour early for Junkanoo. Bill and I had both been right. We dropped our laundry back at the boat and returned to Junkanoo. At the top of the main street area a small band of men were putting on their costumes. On the side of the hill the performers had lit some trash on fire in order to dry their drumskins over it. As we weaved through them, one of them raised his glass to me. "I drink to you!" he announced. "I drink to you!"
Fast percussive rhythms were spitting out of the public address system. Over the drumming, the DJ sang instructions: "Put your bottles... in the trash.... Put your bottles... in the trash..." He had to turn the sound down several times to lower his drain on the island's electrical output.
The crowd was now much larger and much darker. The Brilanders, as the islanders call themselves, had come later but had come in force. Bill and I stood in line at a snack stand to get dinner when the parade started. The small group of performers appeared dressed in cardboard that was painted in bright colors and glued-on glitters, a tall striped hat with a large serrated crown, large cardboard bracelets that the wrists, and a cardboard skirt, striped and serrated like the hat, and standing out from the hips like a tutu. The performers banged drums as they danced down the street and out of our sight.
We hadn't even gotten through the snackstand line and the parade was over. We laughed as we carried our dinners back to the boat where we had a decent view of the activities. The music continued as the performers reached the end of the street, turned around, and went back up the street. We thought they were going to do it a third time, when the island plunged into blackness and a huge 'Oh!' rose from the crowd. The DJ had blown the island's power grid.
Around the marina lights reappeared on the boats as the owners resorted to their generators. We decided to take a walk back to Tingum Village to see if Bill had left a pair of sunglasses there.
Starting into the dark streets, we climbed the now familiar hill toward the small cemetary at its crest. Just as it came into sight, Bill said to me, "Is that a white horse?"
"What?" I asked. Had I heard him right? I turned my head slightly and gasped. There, to my right, a large horse was grazing quietly, its white coat tinged blue by the night. Across the street from the graveyard. "Creeepy!" I whispered.
Back at the boat, our neighbors encouraged us to visit Exuma, enticing us with descriptions of the island's unchecked beauty, wild iguanas, and great diving. Bill and I dragged the chart and Guide to the marina bar and opened everything up on a table. We spent the next four hours trying to figure out how we could manage a visit to Exuma and still meet our goal of being back in the States on the first of the new year. As the barmaid closed out the register, we realized with regret that it wasn't possible.
The next morning we moved the boat to the City Dock and went to the laundromat. As we tied up to the dock a very small boy watched us intently. We lifted the heavy laundry-filled pillowcases onto the dock and climbed up. The little boy had one of the bags firmly by the knot and clearly intended to help us with our luggage, although the bag was almost his height and probably more than his weight. Bill thanked him for his help and gave him a dollar for his good intentions.
The laundromat's sign had said they opened at six a.m., and we figured with Junkanoo the night before we'd probably be the only ones there at eight in the morning. We were wrong. There was a line of women waiting to use the machines.
Bill learned there was another laundromat on the island. He took one pillowcase and went to find it. After a while he returned minus the laundry. It was in a machine in the other laundromat, but the owner wanted to close up and would only let him wash the one load, and not even dry it. In my laundromat, the line hadn't budged.
It ended up taking three hours and two laundromats to do two pillowcases of clothes. Bill's share was finished first, and he came back down to keep me company. While we waited for the dryer to finish we crossed the street and stood on the seawall, watching a man shell conch. He was friendly and talked to us as he performed his work; puncturing the shell on one side, then reaching in with a tool and pulling the conch free from its shelter. He then took a knife, cut part of the conch off, and dropped the rest of it in a bucket of water.
The buckets were delivered to the conch salad stand, six feet away. In the stand, two women who would fit in at a poetry reading at Shakespeare & Co. chopped the fresh conch with tomatoes and peppers, then tossed the mixture with lime and orange juice. While we waited in line at the stand I played with one of the stray dogs that were common on the island. These dogs were locally known as potcakes; I don't know why. They were slow-moving friendly animals that wandered among the groups of people collected along the seawall, getting petted now and then, or being handed a scrap. Other than the open sores I saw on many of their legs, they seemed to be in pudgy good health.
Our laundry finally done, we returned to the boat and shoved off toward Spanish Wells. Halfway there we dropped anchor off a deserted beach and played around the boat. Bill took a swim, I relaxed in the sun. A few boats passed as the afternoon went by in lazy conversation. A passing boat called us on the VHF and we responded. It was the pilot who'd taken in the yacht we'd followed two days before. He told us there was a storm coming in and that we should get to shelter. We said we'd go to Spanish Wells and he recommended a marina there. We thanked him and said we'd buy him a drink when we got there.
A stop at the fuel dock was frustrating. We were running low on cash, due to our underestimation of fuel costs in the islands, and were trying to put whatever we could on the credit cards. The dock man said they took credit cards so we filled up. Fortunately, we only topped off, because it turned out that while they did accept credit cards, the person who knew how to process them was out. We had to pay cash.
Moving along the harbor we scanned the jumble of commercial piers for potential docking sites. We went all the way along the channel till we faced the open ocean at the far end of the island, then turned around and eased into the marina recommended by the pilot.
The first thing we noticed about the Spanish Wells yacht haven was that they had a laundromat, clean, new, and deserted. Also, they had showers. We were happy. The dockmaster, Antony, came over and took some information from us, then explained about the showers, laundromat, pool, bar, and restaurant. We crossed the island to the grocery store in order to restock the cooler. Spanish Wells reminded me of a George Orwell novel in some ways; the small stucco houses in island style were set in elaborate, well-tended gardens and separated by neat fences.
The most common forms of transportation that we saw were mopeds and bicycles. The moped riders wore little plastic helmets but they wore them like hats, on top of their heads, not like helmets, around their heads. And they left them on. At home bikers always remove their helmets before they even dismount their bikes, but in Spanish Wells the helmets stayed on, perched on the crowns of people's heads and held in place by chin straps worn between the chin and lower lip. I mentally titled them Asshole Hats. But not in a mean way.
We marvelled at the prices in the grocery. A loaf of bread was three dollars. Pop tarts, crackers, and cookies were all more than five dollars. The vegetables were unappetizing and expensive. We shopped for staples only and returned to the boat. After showers, we made sandwiches and as it started to rain, relaxed in the cutty cabin. Around nine Bill wanted to make a trip to the marina bar to gather information about the next leg of our trip. I put on my black-and-white shift and went with him.
The bar reminded me of my neighbors' rec rooms when I was in high school; the cheap dark panelling, the large institutional tiles of the linoleum floor, the pool table under bright flourescent shoplights. There were a few other patrons, all of whom were memorable in their own way.
Playing pool was a Hulk Hogan look-a-like, complete with muscles, bald spot, and long hair. He wore a vest over his shirtless chest. His pool partner was a women in her thirties wearing spandex pants tucked into high-heeled boots, and a glittery sweater. Her style idol was Stevie Nicks.
At the bar three men drank beer and watched the television. When they opened their mouths, they talked in slow stutters.
Bill asked the bartender a question about a route, and the bartender directed him to the outdoor patio, where a table of people sat talking. "Dey're de ones dat would know," he said. Bill went out to talk to them while I stayed inside, out of the chilly wind.
Soon Bill returned with an older man and the chart. He opened the chart onto the bar and discussed the next day's travel with the older man, who was the captain of a forty-foot fishing vessel. We all chatted and began to buy each other drinks.
The captain, who reluctantly revealed his name to be Eric, told us that his family had been in the Bahamas for two-hundred and fifty years. He was from Long Island in the Exumas, but hadn't been there for fourteen years. While we were speaking a young woman came inside and kissed Eric goodbye. "That's my daughter," he said. "She goes to school in South Carolina." He also had a sister in Baltimore and another sibling in North Carolina.
The bar was becoming more crowded as we spoke. The drinks were flowing; people all over the bar were buying each other drinks. The crowd was diverse. The oldest people there were in their sixties, the youngest in their teens. I tried to excuse myself but Eric, very hospitable, insisted I have one more drink. That actually meant a few more drinks. At one point an elderly woman wearing a cotton-candy beehive hairdo, a tight black minidress, and white go-go boots had me sent over an order of conch salad. I laughed; men have sent me drinks before, but never before had a woman sent me seafood salad.