Why wouldn’t a passage named The Devil’s Backbone intimidate even the most intrepid of mariners?
Then you get the details: to port, rollers and swells conspiring with a treacherous reef; to starboard, an inhospitable shore. Shifting sand banks, shoals, breakers, tidal rips—even in calm weather. Coral and rock everywhere. All this in shallow—really shallow—water. At high tide some “navigable” areas 7 ½ feet. Plus, the whole shebang is virtually unmarked.
Strewn with wrecks, including a pyramided threesome, this 11-mile “passage” is a mere thread running along Eleuthera’s northern shoreline. It links the prosperous lobster-harvesting island of Spanish Wells with Harbour Island, the Bahamas’ first capital, depicted with amazing unanimity as beachy yet elegant; picturesque and historic—a little sister to Nantucket.
Nantucket—where we cut our yachting teeth? Where we arrived in a 35-foot wood Chris Craft and returned in a behemoth 42-foot Trojan motor yacht— one of the defining moments of our lives.
So that’s why we would want to traverse the Devil’s Backbone.
ALL the pilotage information in the various yachting guides essentially begins, “Don’t do it, first- timer.” Second- or even third-timer is implied.
Charts are guaranteed inaccurate, usually by the chartmaker himself. “Golden coral heads” sound pretty but puncture pitilessly. An innocent passing cloud can obscure a rock, sending a boat disagreeably aground. Waypoint to waypoint navigation is pointless—there are no waypoints. The three skinny “marker” poles along the way have sometimes been reported missing, changed, moved or hurricane damaged.
Apparently a Devil’s Backbone crossing requires not only good light and cooperative—meaning not northerly—winds but also a dolphin’s navigational skills and an Evelyn Woods-equivalency degree in Reef Reading & Coral Spotting. An expensive pair of polarized sunglasses may or may not help.
Better to pay the $75 pilot fee than the potential repair bills.
Pilots who navigate boats through this no-fun gymkhana advertise in print or by word of mouth. ”Little Woody,” “Bandit” and “Edsel” were names that failed to inspire confidence but how can we go wrong with Bradley NEWBOLD. Besides Bradley Newbold comes recommended by most other cruisers and with some 40 years of experience. Also with two loaves of still-warm, home-baked Bahamian bread.
Boy Scout Water Scout
Focused on the “bold” rather than the long experience, I am surprised by the tiny, weathered septuagenarian who dinghies up to our stern, his wee head flanked by two oversized question-mark ears and nearly drowning in a high-crowned baseball cap. With a withered parsnip nose, a tight drawstring mouth and leathery, sun-worn skin, he might have been an Iowa farmer but the addition of an outsized prow of a chin and resolute eyes focused on the distance make him the quintessential old salt—except in miniature. You wouldn’t be surprised to find the ceramic version on the shelf of a Cape Cod gift store.
Belying his 76 years, Bradley springs up the stern ladder, whiplashes his Whaler to a cleat, leaps over the cockpit coaming and takes the wheel with authority and a set of surprisingly large hands.
The diminutive body juxtaposed with the wrinkled face evokes—concurrently, discordantly—innocent boyhood and seasoned old age. The immaculate chinos, the spotless white sneakers and button-down shirt buttoned clear down to the cuffs say “Dressed by Mama to go out and win the spelling bee.” But they also say “Careful about details…Gets things right, ” which is curiously reassuring as we relinquish LULU.
His only question is, “How do I throttle her up?” (Wouldn’t you have thought, “How do I slow her “down? “) And not, “Where’s the depth finder or the wind meter or the speed indicator?”
In fact, seeking direct eye contact with the water at the bow he requests we unzip the plastic windshield, which drapes it over all the meters and renders them unreadable. He never even glances at the on-deck computer screen, which fairly howls, “Less-than one-meter depths!” Clearly, technology is not part of Bradley’s cruise plan.
“Been doing this trip for 40 years,” he says. A certain cadence and the singular pronunciation of “yee-uhs” and “40,” rhyming with “naughty,” resonate pure Gloucester whaling captain.
“How long did you live in New England?” I ask.
“Lived hee-uh in Spanish Wells all my life,” he answers.
Quite incredibly, the residents of Spanish Wells date back almost 350 years to the original Eleutherians—a colony of Bermudans seeking religious freedom who themselves capsized on the Devil’s Backbone. A century later they were joined by a group of post-Revolutionary War English Crown loyalists fleeing the American colonies. Thus linguistically connected at the outset and living altogether isolated, breeding solely among themselves, has resulted in an almost pure Elizabethan English speech, which is essentially the source of our own New England twang.
.“Now you two just sit back and enjoy the ride.”
Hard to believe but we do exactly that, despite a computerized chart staring at us that is so studded with the black “X’s that indicate rocks it looks more like an embroidery canvas than a navigational instrument.
“Enjoy” is an extravagant understatement for what turns out to be one of the most spectacular nautical experiences of our combined century of boating. We’ve been dealt a warm, glorious morning with 20 to 25-knot winds: southerly—the safe kind—putting us in the lee of the land. Similar northerlies could throw almost any boat, with any pilot, off course. No pilot ventures out in them.
Guidebooks neglect to mention the sheer beauty of the passage, though they prepare amply for the awareness of possible, instantaneous peril, which Bradley’s competent presence mitigates—almost—to the point of extinction.
Not once does he even eyeball the cockpit computer. I know this because for the most part he takes us exactly where it wouldn’t. The coral, the rocks, the reef and the waters seem about as familiar to him as his own wife.
Thus reassured we are unruffled while he propels us forward—at an incredible 6.3 knots, in 22-knot wind—even as we watch the depth meter sink to 1.5 then 1.2, feet, then one-foot under the keel. But eventually one of us cracks, bleating, “Bradley, we’ve only got five inches below the keel.”
“Don’t need much more, do you?” he says with characteristic economy. Mischief dances in the powder-blue eyes that still read without glasses.
“Relax,” he advises. “This is what you pay me for. Be a whole lot different if you were doing it yourselves, now wouldn’t it?”
After that we keep silent. His implacable calm—nonchalance with a steel rod running straight through it—frees us to appreciate the unrelieved splendor of nature unspoiled by humankind. Magnificent miles of unsullied sand—in long stretches and curvaceous horseshoes—broken only by the occasional gang of frilly palms or parade of statuesque casuarinas.
The surrounding waters are mottled with great puddles of color, like random lily pods, ranging from the purest of aqua to the deepest of cobalt. White breakers soar from the sea surface and gallop toward shore, crashing in foamy clouds of spray against low walls of rock. One lone frothy blowhole performs for us, the sole audience.
For part of the way Bradley steers close by the shore—sometimes within 30 feet of the beach.
“Who taught you to do this?” I ask.
“My older brother. Done it a good many thousand times myself now,” he allows modestly. The three other Devil’s Backbone pilots have five and six years experience, one more than 20, he tells us.
“And who taught him?
”Don’t really know.”
The biggest vessel he’s navigated through was 160 feet, drawing nine feet. More boats used to risk the trip unaided, many going aground or tearing up their props, but lately it’s mostly large, and frequently megayachts, that visit Harbour Island. So there’s plenty of work in season, roughly December to mid-June.
“Yes, one megayacht did go aground some time recently. With a pilot. Wasn’t me,” he crows. “Never gone aground myself.”
He doesn’t volunteer much but replies easily to questions, relaxed and at the same time focused even with inches under the keel. We’re close to top speed and nearly French-kissing a nest of rocks when he answers his handheld radio, switches channels and contracts the next-day’s passage. He can navigate, study a chart, point out anchorages, all the while keeping us entirely safe.
Harbour Island and back Harbour Island is Nantucket in pastels; Nantucket with pink sand beaches, with the odd rooster ambling the streets. Everywhere are restored cottages and more substantial clapboard homes dating back to the 1700s and 1800s and similarly saddled with cutesy names like “Beside the Point.”
The island has always been serious Society terrain but now borders on Hampton trendy. The current roster of celebrity owners includes Mick Jagger, Robert De Niro, Richard Gere, Elle MacPherson, Barry Diller and Wayne Huizanga. Also Lord Mountbatten’s daughter or granddaughter or great-granddaughter and first cousin to Prince Charles, at whose villa Diana was once photographed nude and pregnant.
The preferred transportation mode is the golf cart, in which buff couples and their taffy-skinned kids zip through the streets, beach bound. The few plush hotels are stunningly appointed and charge accordingly. Not a single of the excellent restaurants blushes at $42 for a single, locally caught lobster tail, to be washed down with a passable $60 Antinori Chianti—the cheapest bottle on the menu.
After four days it’s not clear what’s more stuffed—us or our AmEx.
We hail Bradley—“Cinnabar, Cinnabar”—on the VHF radio—though a solo return to Spanish Wells could be a breeze. We’ve got his whole track plotted on the computerized chart. But we’re too smart to risk it; besides that first experience was far too much fun.
He arrives, bringing two more loaves of bread and even stronger south winds: 25 knots or more. At 27 knots those dangly earlobes flutter like luffing sails. This second ride is wilder. LULU rolls more, yet our tranquility nearly rivals the pilot’s. Gary even sees fit to catnap. Neither of us misses the part where we’re doing 7 ½ knots in 24 knots and we’ve got three inches…strike that, two inches, and then—how can it be?—NO inches under our bottom. For a heart-stopping minute or more.
Yet not a single clunk. Sure doesn’t happen when we’re at the helm. We’ve “road-tested” this depth meter plenty and bumped up against its reality often enough to be sure it doesn’t lie—at least not to us.
“Bradley,” I croak, “do you have insurance?”
“No…but I won’t put you aground.”
Nor does he.
Twice then, Bradley makes The Devil’s Backbone look disarmingly easy. Incredibly, his second track almost duplicates the first. For several long, snaky stretches the second runs exactly over the first. When the two diverge on the computer screen, they are mere feet—five or less—apart. It’s as if he’d seen our dotted lines written on the unmarked water.
“Bradley, I didn’t think you could give us a more exciting ride,” I say.
“Third time’ll be even better. That’s a promise.”