After three months, a further take on the Bahamas: no sailing; frequent weather fronts; few restaurants or interesting settlements; almost no decent food markets, no shallow (though spectacular) water. The water so shallow and so clear that scuba diving is out and throwing biodegradable food scraps in anchorages is entirely verboten. With virtually no land sites to dispose of garbage, it tends to fester inside the boat—or become deck décor.
Traveling—even from one tiny cay to the next—requires extremely careful navigation so as not to run aground. Which we do on an average of twice each time we move.
MINISTRY, which aptly describes her owner’s avocation, hails us on the radio one night from across a harbor. He’s spotted our masthead light bobbing in a normally empty channel.
“Just checking to make sure you’re not in trouble over there,” he says.
”We’re fine,” answers Gary. “We’re anchored because we’ve already fulfilled our quota of three agrounds per day. We have to wait until tomorrow to move again.”
The water temperature hovers around 72, much too chilly for swimming—at least for these bones—and chilly, rough, wet dinghy rides do not encourage leaving the boat on exploratory missions.
Cold fronts pass through on an average of every five days: this is really mid-Florida weather, and this year is especially cold, since the whole East Coast is suffering a frigid, snowy winter.
Factoring in the wind chill, it’s 40 degrees one morning at 7AM. We can't imagine why people return year after year other than lack of imagination or sheer terror. Most of the cruisers we’ve met are three- and four-year Bahama veterans; the current record, we hear, is held by SEA CAMEL with 11 years, until we learn of one couple’s 20-year Bahamian tryst.
One night the wind clocks regularly to 25 and 30, but we’re extremely fortunate to be in a stable anchorages, tucked into a narrow spot between two islands with just enough swing room for us not to end up on land.
Speaking of stability, there are few secure Bahamian anchorages during fronts because the wind blasts in from every direction. So if you hide on the west side of an island to be protected from an east wind, then before long the wind will shoot up behind you. Spinning like a dreidel around the anchor is a brand new sailing trick.
Gentle Bahama breezes have already blown out two of our American flags.
Though this may sound like we have, in fact, we haven’t lost our perspective. With sledding and tobogganing part of our distant past, we’re far happier in choppy water than in the 13 inches of snow recorded in Central Park one morning, not to mention the three feet in Boston. But the Bahamas are not what we expected. Not hardly.
The George Town Follies
We move further south and east—to George Town on Great Exuma Island. People seem to fall into categories: Hate George Town. Love George Town. Nobody’s neutral. Neither are we.
We’re greeted by several hundred sailboats anchored off the beaches. Lovely beaches, lovely boats, lovely water.
At first glance it's somewhat like a summer bungalow colony or adult camp—with its own version of Reveille: the radio announcements. They start at 8:15 AM: bridge lessons and volleyball on Volleyball Beach at two; softball practice at 4; yoga on Hamburger Beach at 8 (hamburgers not included); pig roast at Chat N Chill. The weather, of course, plus daily specials at local restaurants and a host of parties, daily, on and off the beaches...Meetings of AA (Anonymous) and AA (Appreciation)
"I'm looking for a dog groomer for Poopsie, can anyone help?" (This last—I swear—put forth as an emergency.)
At second glance, votes Gary, “It's a floating RV colony swarming with folks who come down each year, plop themselves in the harbor, drink rum and play beach games.”
The man can be vicious.
Serene, if crowded, beach anchorages are about a mile across the bay to the town. A bumpy, splashy mile—most people wear rain gear. Town has paved roads, a proper market, several stores and a few small hotels.
In an attempt to find the charm, we rent a car and drive most of the 60 mile length (plus the 60 mile return) of the island's sole road, a bleak ribbon with almost no vegetation and hardly a house—but virtually infested with long-abandoned construction sites and hundreds of faded signs promoting future waterfront developments: a forlorn job if ever there were one.
We see only one person along the entire route—a local in a faded plaid shirt ambling we can’t imagine where. That soul only until we pass a wood shack belted by a deep octagonal countertop—with almost all its surrounding barstools sporting tushes that belong to people swilling and shoveling food enthusiastically.
IN THE BAHAMAS??? How could we not stop?
Presiding over the circular kitchen is Dee, a Bahamian of—ample would be putting it charitably—proportion. Dee turns out to be a cook of extravagant skill. Her talent is especially noteworthy since her menu consists of dishes other island shoemaker-chefs serve up so tough the hapless diner needs teeth usually allotted only to lions, tigers and wolves.
Thus, at 4PM, we stuff ourselves profligately: a small, entirely delicious, serendipitous feast—this notwithstanding the long-marinated boneless leg of lamb in our immediate future.
Dee, we learn, is the daughter of the famous—Bahamas-wide, anyway—Mom of Mom's bakery. Mom sells cruiser-celebrated homemade bread downtown out of a van, concurrently dispensing big hugs and God-bless-you's to all. Now, she’s a reason to come to George Town.
In fact, after a few weeks we strike a better balance with Camp Rah Rah. This happens soon after I join an Ashtanga (the George Town specialization is mindboggling) yoga class on the beach and find at the Exuma Market not only a creditable array of fresh produce but also the jar of pesto sauce I’m stalking—an incredible provisioning coup, one probably unavailable even in St.Barth.
I attend the monthly Women Aboard luncheon to hear a nurse practitioner lecture on medical emergencies onboard. What to do in case of cardiac arrest, stroke, appendicitis, broken or dislocated bones…convivial but not an altogether cheery event.
“How was it?” Gary inquires when I return.
“I can tell you for sure, Gar. You’re gonna die.”
Suddenly summer camp roars into high gear with the opening of the 25th annual George Town Cruiser's Regatta—a 10-day event. AKA Color War for (Drifting) Dummies.
At around 4PM, from far-flung anchorages around the 12-square-mile Elizabeth Harbor come hundreds of cruisers—a multiplicity of nationalities and ages—dragging 50 or more dinghies onto the sand at Volley Ball Beach. The festivities open with the regatta's first competition—the Second Annual Pet Parade, with prizes for the most original costumes.
“Also describable as stupid humans playing dumb tricks on dumb animals, cheered on by almost-as-stupid other humans,” votes Gary—never one to understand the whole animal ownership/adoration thing.
"Try and imagine the liberal frenzy and media storm from the Left,” continues LULU's resident Right-Wing Omnipresence, “had these tortures been perpetrated on the Abu Ghraib prisoners.”
Prancing was intended but instead some 20 assorted pets, primarily dogs, are dragged around a roped-off pen of sand, each wrapped, taped, knotted or otherwise inserted into (and trying mightily to kick or bite or shake off) string bikinis, raincoats, hula skirts, snorkel masks, cardboard beer cartons, even dreadlocks and coconut nipple pasties.
One entrant marches around displaying on an outstretched palm her "pet" snail, painted in psychedelics and chapeau-ed in a fingernail-sized bonnet. First prize goes to Pea Brain, a 6" green iguana wearing a feather headdress.
We can only assume George Town, Great Exuma, The Bahamas was just too remote a transgression site for rabid PETA protestors to rally brandishing nasty signs.
On the heels of this animal competition comes an intermission for a bite (and just about literally a bite) to eat. Because the rules prohibit cruiser-brought food and drink, the hungry hordes are at the mercy of the sole eating establishment—the Chat N Chill beach bar. There, chattin' and chillin' are about the only available fare. Actually not even chillin' since the cold beer vanishes by 5:30. Hamburgers likewise evaporate.
Possible are either a guppy-sized fish filet or halves of chicken from birds so oversized and fatty they might be force-fed for the local twist on foie-gras. The chicken is allegedly barbecued but emerges pale, underdone and sweating some mucous-like substance a more charitable reviewer might characterize as gravy.
Also on the menu are hot dogs: plump and charred, with the tantalizing possibility of relish along with the mustard. Except...available somewhere else, we are informed when we finally reach the top of a long line of the starved and parched
"Hot dogs are on the beach, not here. If you want ‘em, get 'em outside on the beach!" snarls the bar mistress glaring apoplectically at all comers through thyroid-augmented eyes. She is the human approximation of an armored tank, sporting two mortar-sized projectiles. These mammarian protrusions swivel so menacingly when she finally deigns to take our order that I find myself stammering and stuttering the punchline of an old joke: "Cancel my hot dog."
Thus do we experience yet another Bahamian treat: Dinner for 300 with nothing to eat. But plenty of attitude.
On the subject of food, also missing from the Chat N Chill offerings is the Bahamian food staple—conch (pronounced "conk"). Conch is a considerably larger, tougher cousin of the snail. It appears on virtually every island menu as conchburgers, conch fritters and cracked conch, which, as near as I can determine, is the whole conch animal slammed with a cleaver, presumably to tenderize, then dipped in batter and fried.
Conch live in large pink and white trumpet-shaped shells that, when addressed properly by proficient lips, produce a sound. In many islands that sound can be so pure and the players so practiced that different tones sent out across an entire harbor signifies the various fish caught and possibly for sale on a particular day.
Frequently, cruisers are amateur but nonetheless avid, conch players. Thus, the Regatta Opening Night Festivities program resumes with a Conch Sounding Contest (one might say, a conch-cert). Participants—some 20 to 30—vie for the loudest and longest blast on their emptied and scrubbed conch shells. Though most manage mere bleats, sounding altogether mournful, some few—presumably the free divers who spearfish without benefit of scuba tanks—wail much longer: one as long as 39 seconds.
A two-part Carnival Mask event follows, for both kids and adults. The youngsters' masks are gay, spangly, glittery and entirely inventive but, alas, I'm embarrassed to report that Gary and I have, of late, been overtaken by such advanced age and broad-spectrum decrepitude that at about 9, just after the kids and before the adult masks, we limp off the beach with throbbing knee- (me) and stabbing heel- (Gary) pain. Clearly we are in no shape for the banshee dancing that allegedly follows the adult masks.
By now, three weeks into George Town, we’ve attended a bunch of parties. We’ve re-experienced how wildly varied, adventurous and quirky cruisers are, making it impossible to maintain the curmudgeon stance. Like almost every place we initially trash we’ve become enthusiasts.
We can even begin to understand why people get stuck (or, from another point of view, ecstatic about) coming back year after year. It is, after all, not that different from owning a winter home in Boca. In fact, you never know—when crotchety old bodies insist we retire from this retirement we, too, may well become winter regulars. Especially since we’ve just discovered the Chat N Chill spareribs aren’t half bad…Now if we could only make friends with Missile Tits.