Mailboats Article 11 for Tribune Spring/Summer 2016: Wooden Boats
There were three basic but distinct types of mailboats serving the Bahamas over 200 years: wooden, European, and modern, meaning purpose-built, steel, twin-screw vessels. For each epoch we will look into the colorful histories of a half-dozen or so vessels. In this feature we will cover wooden boats built between 1867 and 1977, many of them sail, some of the latter ones fitted with engines. Specifically let us take a look at nine summaries of the career histories of the Dart (c.1867), Kate Sturrup (1890), Endion (1898), Arena (c.1910), Content S. (1920), OId Horseye (1930), Selma Rose (1947), Spanish Rose (1977), and Current Pride (c.1980).
Dart was built as a 35-foot harbor pilot boat in c.1867, for speed and agility in crossing the Nassau bar and placing and retrieving pilots aboard visiting ships. Sporting two masts, the schooner was enlarged twice. Believed to have been built in Harbour Island, she served that community and Spanish Wells, setting a record at the time of eight hours for the passage. Owned by John Saunders Harris of Eleuthera, the Dart is credited with providing the first regular inter-island mail and freight service, as opposed to those vessels shuttling mail from steam-ship depots on Fortune Island (Long Cay) and Crooked Island to Nassau.
Dart won a number of racing regattas under the command of various members of the Harris family. According to the Taylors of Mayaguana, there was a “coloured deck hand” nicknamed Old Blarney who would fire a small cannon from the foredeck to announce her arrival at the Harris Wharf, at the foot of Pine Street in Dunmore Town. According to historians the cabins were reserved for white passengers. The historic little vessel served for over 55 years and is believed to have been lost in a hurricane in 1922.
The 51-ton schooner Kate Sturrup was likely built in Harbour Island in 1890. Two years later she briefly replaced the Dart on the Nassau – Harbour Island run for just a year. She was owned by Henry William F. Sturrup, and one of her later captains was Arnold Ingraham. The Tribune of May 10, 1916 records that the Kate Sturrup served its civic duty in delivering members of the Third Bahamas Contingent on the first leg of their long journey to Europe to fight in the First World War.
The Tribune editor, Captain Dillet, followed the contingent as far as Jamaica, writing: “The Police Band discoursed a variety of music in fine style from the deck of the “Colonia” while she was towing the “Zellers” and the “Kate Sturrup,” and when a rag time item was on, many people, both on the boats and on the land, swayed themselves to the time thereof in rhythmic fashion. Those who witnessed the scene will not easily forget it, and many who would scorn to weep loudly found a strange choking sensation at the throat as this new body of soldiers left our shore…. …Those of the contingent who sailed on the “Zellers” were under the care of Capt. Cole, while Capt. Dillet had the control of those who embarked on the “Kate Sturrup.”” Forty years later Kate Sturrup left the Bahamas permanently for Jamaica.
The Endion was built in 1898 in Boston as a 103-foot private yacht, with an oil-burning engine and capacity for 18 passengers in two staterooms. After a stint as a US Navy vessel (SP-707) in WWI, she was purchased at auction by the Harbour Island Steamship Company (Albert Sweeting, Director, value set at US$7,000), in 1921 to replace the Dart. After a refit in New York in October of that year, Endion was delivered to the Bahamas by Captain E. B. Sweeting, with crew Gerald Johnson, Roy Sweeting, Percy Bethel, Frank Johnson, Nick Sawyer and Albert Sweeting. Her other captains included Albert Sweeting and William G. Harris. The Guardian noted that “every 10 days, for the price of 8 shillings cabin or 5 shillings steerage, tourists and locals could visit historic and picturesque Dunmore Town – the ideal health resort of the Bahamas.”
The diminutive 50-foot sailing sloop Arena began its career as a humble sponger on the Bahama Banks in the late 1800s. With the demise of that industry in the 1920s, she was put to work by the indefatigable Captain Sherwin Archer of Abaco, as the last of the wind-driven mailboats serving that island from Nassau. In her classic photo-essay of the northern Bahamas entitled Out Island Portraits, Ruth Rodriguez described Archer as “Man-O-War’s Sears Roebuck. He cheerfully entered each order in his notebook, whether it was a packet of needles or a new engine for a boat. His small miracle: everything delivered in good shape and – weather permitting – on time.”
The motorized mail boats Stede Bonnett and Prescilla had been plying the trade from Nassau to Abaco, there was even an air service in the form of a 21-seat Catalina amphibious plane. Captain Archer and his son Bobby, the relief captain supplemented the service. His sloop was to ply the traditional trade for a decade from 1940 to 1950. Then, it was upgraded and an engine was installed. Ultimately Arena was supplanted by the motor vessel Tropical Trader – thus ended the days of sailing merchants between Abaco and the colony’s capital. Archer went on to become a senator representing Abaco.
The mailboat Content S. began its career as the 110-foot wooden motor yacht Percianna II in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1920, where a researcher recently discovered the original slipway of the J. M. Densmore boatyard where she was built. For 16 years the yacht served various owners, from a socialite member of the New York Yacht Club named Percy, then a Mr. Spaulding from inland Vermont, then she languished in Miami under the name Content until Carl Sawyer of R. W. Sawyer in Nassau found and purchased her in 1936, adding an “S” to her name, presumably for Sawyer.
Two of her Bahamian captains were Stanley Weatherford of Green Turtle Cay, and Roland Roberts of Eleuthera. Grover Theis – Waterfront Reporter for The Miami News, wrote on March 27, 1940: “now with a converted yacht in the service offering deluxe accommodations, it is not unlikely at all that lots of folks who hesitated about taking the “tramp” trip will slip off on the Content for a little vacation excursion and see for themselves what lies in our front yard.” Content S. had accommodation for 12 passengers and she was originally put on the run from the northern Bahamas to Miami. According to “Pappa” Floyd Lowe, patriarch of Green Turtle Cay as well as Patrick J. Bethel, of Cherokee Sound, the vessel was more of a yacht than a cargo carrier and never did particularly well as the latter.
Underutilized in Nassau, the Content S. was chartered by HRH the Duke of Windsor to sail from Nassau first to Cross Harbor Abaco to rescue survivors of the Norwegian tanker O. A. Knudsen on the 8th of March 1942, then about a week later to Hope Town to rescue survivors of the British tanker Athelqueen. She dutifully carried these many passengers on deck to Nassau. One of them, Alan Heald, still living in Preston, England, was so impressed that he thought they were rescued by the royal yacht Victoria and Albert. Whilst serving as a banana boat in the West Indies she was rammed, sunk by the tug Foundation Aranmore off Cuba in 1946.
The mixed sail and power 87-footer Old Horseeye began its career as the motor vessel Patricia K. in 1930, in the slipway of Berlin Albury at Dunmore Town, Harbour Island. Almost 100 gross tons, the motor was 165 horsepower. The original owner was Kelly’s Lumber Yard, and Allan H. Kelly named it for his daughter Patricia. After 1940 John Percy Sweeting of Harbour Island owned it. While she may not have strictly carried the mail contract, this colorful vessel with an unforgettable name nevertheless added to Bahamian maritime lore.
Author Dave Gale of Island Marine, Parrot Cay Abaco recorded in Ready About: Voyages of Life in the Abaco Cays that “in 1956 she was leading an equally hard life as an inter-island freighter, smelling of old wood, flaky paint, and diesel fuel. Her helmsman turned her wheel in the protection of a pilothouse, perched tugboat style, at her bow. She rolled, but she didn’t heel. Her helmsman could not hear her bow wave because of the insistent diesel engine that plunged her headlong into each wave without a care for easing her over it, and its throb was felt as well as heard throughout her hull. The vibrations worked their way up through the helmsman’s feet and occasionally set a wheelhouse window to sympathetic rattling. …As a Bahamian boat, it was easy to assume she’d been named for the Horse Eye Jack. [She] had a charter with a hardware and lumber company to carry freight from Miami to Nassau.”
Benjamin Roberts of Marsh Harbour writes that his father built the Selma Rose (also spelt Zelma), in 1947 in Abaco. She was a 30-ton wooden motor vessel under the command of Captain Edison Higgs. Though little is known about her early life, with the help of Mrs. Eldwith J. Roberts and the June 6, 1952 St. Petersburg Times, we know that six persons tragically drowned when at 2:50 am on June 1st 1952, whilst transporting passengers from Nassau to Spanish Wells, she was overwhelmed by 15-foot seas near Fleeming Channel. Among the dead were a 23-year-old nurse, Oona Newbold, her 18-year-old sister Carol, a 61-year-old Sunday school teacher from the UK, crew Welbourn Pinder and Ephram from Andros, and Charles Algreen (44) of Current. The cargo of lumber, furniture and canisters of gasoline shifted in the momentous seas and she capsized quickly. A sloop named Sally managed to rescue 17 survivors clinging to flotsam.
Remarkably an 18 month-old child named Terrance Lightbourn survived. His father Paul managed to find the infant in a submerged cabin and pull him out by a little foot. Nurse Oona Newbold directed the parents in successfully resuscitating the child, then she herself drowned shortly thereafter. The survivors then got by clinging to the wreck and a dinghy until some eight hours later, when the boat sank and rescue arrived. It was rumored that Captain Higgs swam all the way to Current to summon help, however given that it was 10 miles away, and rescue arrived in eight hours, this is unlikely. A folk song recounting the wreck of the Zelma Rose was released around 1954, popularizing awareness of the incident.
The 75-foot Spanish Rose II was built in 1977, most likely by shipwrights in her home port of Spanish Wells. Her owners were the brothers Captains Gurney Elon and Stephen Pinder of that port. Her primary purpose was to replace the first Spanish Rose (from 1965), running frozen crawfish tails to Nassau so that they could be shipped to the US market in Florida. The boat was available to passengers, as evidenced by an article in the LA Times by Jerry Hulse on May 12, 1985, reading in part:
“If you’re in no hurry, it’s a bargain – only $18 for the five-hour ride, which includes a soft drink and a sandwich and a world of untroubled waters. Don’t get me wrong, [Spanish Rose II] isn’t the Queen Elizabeth 2. Sometimes an errant chicken will run squawking along the deck in a flurry of feathers, a dog hot on its spurs. But there are compensations. If the seas are smooth, it’s a pleasant journey, and occasionally someone will break out a guitar and strum calypso melodies.”
In a 2013 article in The Eleutheran, Captain Gurney Elon Pinder relates in the laconic style characteristic of mariners, that sometime in 1997 “….Gil Pinder said to me, I have 26,000 pounds of lobster tails to go to Nassau…. I said no problem and loaded them with my wife and nephew….. We got into Nassau 8:30am – off loaded and left to return between 3:00pm and 3:30pm that afternoon. At 4pm I had to put out a Mayday call – the boat was sinking and rapidly. We were in the ocean, and in the engine room the water was up four feet, but no lives were lost. We launched a lifeboat, paddled off, and we didn’t even get wet.”
Very little is known about the 88-ton motor mailboat Current Pride, except that she is still operating, and believed to be the last of her tree-derived breed plying the islands of the Bahamas on a commercial basis, carrying the mails as her brethren have for over 200 years. Her master is said to be Captain Patrick Neilly. For a relatively diminutive vessel, she has a busy schedule, connecting Nassau with the entire western and most of the northern coasts of 120-mile-long Eleuthera, from Upper and Lower Bogue, The Bluff, Current Island, and Gregory Town, to James Cistern and Hatchet Bay/Alice Town, a produce-exporting port which was blasted through the coast to provide a lagoon protected 350-degrees around.
For those that wish to ride this historic vessel, they can do so in a few days. She departs Nassau every Thursday at 7am and returns from Hatchet Bay on Tuesdays at 11am. The voyage lasts for five hours and this unforgettable experience costs $30. Call the Potter’s Cay Dock Master ahead of time to be sure! Through the Current Pride the tradition of transporting freight and passengers amongst the Bahamas aboard wooden boats enters its third century.