Mailboats Article 13 for Tribune Spring/Summer 2016: Modern Boats

Mailboats Article 13 for Tribune Spring/Summer 2016: Modern Boats

            The third and final general category of mailboat is the modern type, defined as having at least one engine, being built of steel fairly recently in the US Gulf or Florida, and having cargo derricks or cranes on the forward decks, or roll-on / roll-off (ro-ro) capabilities for vehicles. There are numerous advantages of the modern type over its predecessors, the wooden and the European type. Wooden vessels were generally sail-powered, subject to the vagaries of wind, waves, and current to the degree that motor ships overcame those obstacles. Any wooden boat leaks, and wooden boats fitted with cantankerous machinery tended to leak a lot more. Also wood is a lot less resistant to rot and reefs than steel is. Planks tend to break and it only takes a few of them to cause a sinking.

         As for the European ships, they were designed for the rivers, canals and coasts of northern Europe, and as a result very long and thin, and tended to be deeper in draft than required for the Bahamas. They also had low deck-lines between the when houses aft and the bow, which could be swamped in the open waters of the southern Bahamas, damaging cargo and harming passengers. Finally, they tended to be single-engine, meaning that if something went wrong with one engine, the ship would be disabled. Single engine vessels are also more difficult to control in port and whilst docking.

            The modern mailboat design can be traced to the mid-1980s and vessels like the North Cat Island Special and the Champion II, where were small, stout little ships, custom-built for the Bahamas mail, passenger and cargo trade. Roughly 75 feet long and only 6 feet deep, they were built of steel, under 100 tons, and powered as a general rule by twin diesel engines. Champion II’s builder, Capt. Earnest Dean, admitted he built her small to get into the US market with less paperwork. Vessels like the Grand Master were built exclusively for the Bahamas market at almost twice the size – 214 tons, longer, wider, stronger and capable of withstanding bigger seas. For over 30 years this design has predominated, and makes up roughly half of the present fleet, although there were decades of change in the 70s to 90s during which all manner of craft – repurposed ferries, fishing vessels, offshore supply boats, landing craft, etc. were used.

Why is the modern mailboat so popular? It is strong, seaworthy, shallow, maneuverable, stable and thus comfortable, can work its own cargo, get into and out of hard-to-reach shallow docks, and if it goes aground on a reef, chances are (an many instances have proven) the steel hull will remain intact and the relatively flat bottom will keep it upright until it can be salvaged. The only disadvantage is that unlike the ro-ro variety, modern mailboats cannot simply motor nose-first to the shore – they require some kind of dock or at least another vessel to offload onto.

I thought this second-to-last feature would be one of the easiest to write – identify and describe some 20 vessels still sailing – but it is not. If you search online for a mailboat schedule (it is called the “inter-insular mail-boat schedule” in government parlance), the most recent one, on a government website, is a decade old and lists several vessels (Lady D, sank in 2014 and United Star sold to Honduras after a collision, and Bimini Mack, replaced by the Sherice M) no longer operating in the Bahamas.

Amazingly in this era of instant information, if one is planning a voyage on a mailboat, the best way to prepare is to visit the friendly dock master on Potter’s Cay Dock – at the eastern end. The team there will cheerfully photocopy that week’s actual schedule for you, for free. Armed with that information you should be able to locate the vessel/s of interest and if the boat is in, wander down to ask a few questions about schedules directly with the officers or crew. That way you are less likely to be disappointed by arriving long before a departure, or worse, after the boat has left.

Even after riding mailboats for some 35 years (we are planning a voyage to Ragged Island this August), and studying these sturdy craft from afar for the past five or so years, there is a vessel operating today that I know nothing about: the Lady Katherina. I cannot find a single image of her, and only gather that she has served Mangrove Cay, Moxey Town, and Lisbon Creek Andros for over a decade, and that the trip takes six hours and costs $45. Other boats serve Andros ports of Mangrove Cay, Fresh Creek, Smiths Bay, Kemps Bay, Long Bay and the Bluff.

Overall there are nearly 50 ports in the archipelago, situated on some 20 of the larger islands which a fleet of around 20 mailboats serves today. From Bimini and Grand Bahama to the north to the many ports of Eluethera, Chub and Farmer’s cays and Bullock’s Harbour in the Berry Islands, several ports in Abaco, including Hard Bargain, Staniel Cay, Black Point, and other settlements in Exuma as well as Georgetown, each can expect a weekly or at least monthly mailboat call. Then Rum Cay and San Salvador, Abraham’s Bay Mayaguana, the length of Long Island, Crooked and Acklins islands as well as Long or Fortune Cay between them, and Matthew Town, Inagua – are all covered, as is Duncan Town, Ragged Island.

The 20 or so work horses which accomplish the logistics of delivering people, goods, vehicles, vessels and creatures to and from the islands are similar but of course like their hybrid wooden and European predecessors, not the same. Almost half, or nine of these vessels are the modern ro-ro type popularized by landing craft in World War II and well suited to the shallow islands of the Bahamas due to their low draft and ability to dock, discharge, and load with minimum shore-side infrastructure; often a simple bull-dozed mound or earth would suffice for a ramp (as an additional advantage, the hull, or draft forward is about half as deep as the stern, which carries the engine and fuel and is thus a lot heavier).

The names of some of the new generation of ro-ro ships are Fiesta Mail (China-built and unique), Sea Spirit II (ex-United Spirit), Island Link, Lady Rosalind II, KCT and her substitute VI Nais, East Wind, and New G. The latter vessel was delivered to Bahamas for Capt. Tom Hanna in early 2015. The oldest in the present fleet is also the only holdover to wooden mailboats: the Current Pride. Though we have many photos of this vessel, I don’t know when, where, or by whom she was built – presumably in north Eleuthera or Abaco in the 1960s or 1970s.

Are mailboats as essential and vibrant today as they have been for over 200 years? As vibrant as ever. To illustrate the point, if you were to spend a week “maillboat spotting” at Potter’s Cay – the only place in the Bahamas where more than two congregate at a time – you would not be disappointed. On Monday you would see the Bahamas Daybreak III sail for North Eleuthera, then the (New) Eleuthera Express heading out for South Eleuthera, followed by the Captain Moxey that evening, serving South Andros.  The Fiesta Mailboat would set off for Freeport at dusk, and before midnight the KCT or VI Nais push off for a long voyage to Acklins and Crooked islands.

On Tuesdays mid-day the Lady Rosalind heads for northern Andros, then Grand Master, under Captain Lance, doing what his father did, takes off for Georgetown mid-afternoon as well, followed soon after by either Captain Emmett or Island Link, for northern Long Island (Seymours, Deadmans Cay, Salt Pond). That very day Legacy takes an overnight passage to Abaco’s capital and Hope Town and Green Turtle Cay. Captain C. heads for Ragged Island via several Exuma cays, and Captain Gurth Dean heads into the night for the Abaco islands via the Berries. The Lady Francis heads for San Salvador and Rum Cay, and Lady Mathilda for Mayaguana and Inagua. Lady Emerald sails for Smiths Bay Cay Island as well as San Sal and Rum Cay.

On Wednesdays the Bahamas Daybreak III has returned from south Eleuthera and heads for the northern portion of the island. The Fiesta Mailboat has likewise returned to Nassau and goes back to Freeport, as she will thrice weekly. Lady Rosalind heads west for north Andros later in the afternoon. The following evening – Thursdays – she if off again, this time for northern Cat Island – Arthur’s Town, Dumfries, Orange Creek and Bennett’s Harbour. That evening the Sherice M heads for Bimini via Cat Cay and Chub Cay in the Berry Islands. Current Pride makes for Hatchet Bay and the Bluff, Eleuthera, and the (New) Eleuthera Express under Captain Junior Pinder heads for nearby Spanish Wells and Harbour Island. Early – at 2 AM – the Lady Katherina heads for Mangrove Cay, Moxey Town and Lisbon Creek, Andros, arriving at dawn.

Fridays and the weekends things cool down on the docks as vessels come back to roost at base. At 10 am the Fiesta Mailboat returns to Freeport for the Taylor family of Mayaguana, often with a Bahamian band to entertain weekend passengers. That evening the Captain C returns, followed by the Captain Gurth Dean and 12 hours after she left the Fiesta again. Lady Francis folds its wings Friday morning, right after the Legacy returns from Abaco. On Saturday Lady Emerald returns from the southern islands, followed by the Lady Mathilda from even further afield in Inagua. The Daybreak comes back Sunday at 4 pm, preceded that morning by the Sherice M from Bimini. The (New) Eleuthera Express comes back just after noon, then the Fiesta. Finally Lady Rosalind returns from Cat Island.

One defining feature of these myriad voyages is that you can rely on comfortable, if by no means luxurious, accommodation, running water, shared plumbing, three meals a day, good company, and by pretty much any standard, very reasonable rates of between $25 (Current Pride) and $90 (Lady Mathilda) per passage – not bad considering the distances traveled. But remember, don’t rely on the internet, or even the papers to figure out mailboats: the real experts are the men and women operating them, and the real experience begins right under our noses – on Potter’s Cay or the nearest government dock in the community you live in. 

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