Mailboats Article 14 for Tribune Spring/Summer 2016: Roundup/Summary
Bahamians are justifiably proud of their fleet of dozens of mailboats which connect the islands. Well they should be. Since the inception of inter-island mail delivery, it has been a locally-sponsored and locally-developed trade. In 1803, world powers such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the United States sent their mail and freight to the colony via a then-cosmopolitan, now nearly abandoned Fortune Island, or Long Cay, in the Crooked Island District. Larger, foreign-owned vessels generally brought mail and goods to Nassau from there and from ports in the US, Europe, Central and South America and Caribbean.
But then something new happened, locally built wooden sailing craft began carrying the mails and goods first between Fortune Island and the capital in Nassau (a considerable voyage), but then to nearby communities in North Eleuthera, Abaco, and so on. Soon farmers and fishermen came to rely upon this service to bring goods to market and return with the essential materials to enable them to expand their communities. As Fortune Island’s demise has shown that without efficient trade communities die off: they lose their most important commodity – people – first. Imagine home-coming celebrations nowadays without mailboats to provide happy, affordable and sociable platforms for folks to go back to their roots?
In order to sustain the communities where their voting constituents resided and owned land, politicians and civil servants set about stabilizing trade with Nassau, which thus connected them with the wider world, its markets and transportation hubs. They agreed to subsidize the carriage of mail, and permitted the investors and owners of mailboats (many of them “mom and pop” business with the owner or his sons as captains), to profit from carriage of extra freight and passengers. The government also oversaw licensing and certification of vessels and officers and the allocation of routes and vessels to serve those routes. Given the inherent dangers of maritime navigation, the age of some of the vessels, and the costs in terms of time and capital of replacing mail boats, there has always been an informal system of standby, or replacement vessels to fill in. That system is illustrative of the interdependence and cooperation of mariners in this particular market.
The Bahama Islands require a well-adapted and large fleet of vessels to serve its many communities, particularly because the islands rank as one of the top archipelagos in the world. Bahamas is, according to Wikipedia, roughly in the top ten with some 3,000 cays or islands, behind Indonesia, Philippines, clusters of islands in Scandinavia, the UK, etc. We are the largest archipelago north of the Caribbean on this side of the Atlantic, as far as the Arctic. Our islands stand out from space. And to keep the roughly 35 districts together the commonwealth has devised a system of mailboats to supplant flights by calling at some 50 communities on over 20 islands. Since some of those communities have no regular air service, having a mailboat call, even every two weeks, is essential. After all, just having an airstrip isn’t enough: on San Salvador I inquired why the only airplane on the runway had a wing missing, and was told the owner was so tired of folks demanding the use of his plane that he removed a wing!
These boats provide reliable contact, more or less weekly, with the capital, in a hub-and-spoke system. Importantly, mailboats are not exclusive – other freighters can ply their trade on unscheduled or private routes as they please. It is not a perfect system, in as much as everything must go through the capital, and islanders have historically complained that merchants in Nassau can be rapacious and impose usurious fees, etc. However folks from far flung districts have also developed their own channels of trade, accommodation, and supply based on familial and long-standing relationships. Having mailboat owners and captains originate in the communities they serve has reinforced this tradition.
So mailboats have survived for over 200 years, the readers might say, but will they continue to survive? In my opinion, backed by nearly 30 years of seagoing or commercial maritime experience, yes, mailboats are here to stay. To put it simply, until they can fly petroleum in bulk lots, or pipe vegetables and concrete, the world will still need the reliable old freighters. We need only look a dozen years back, at the United Star versus Sea Hauler to realize that accidents will continue to happen. That case was particularly egregious because the officers had tools to avoid it – radar, radios. Nowadays the tools for collision avoidance are even better, however they are useless without a well rested, trained and alert person operating them. Some 15 years ago I thought it was charming to be woken up by a mailboat’s erratic motion, to wander into the bridge to find it abandoned, then voluntary take the helm, one captain to another, until the skipper returned from repairing machinery. As we all know now, there is nothing charming about a vessel without a lookout slamming into another one also steaming blind in the night.
As for the fall-out from the Sea Hauler/United Star collision, in which four Bahamians were killed and 25 injured, including an amputee, let’s leave aside the contentious facts and look at the perception. To this day the official report is not readily available. Victims were left in the dark for months, then years. It is during times like those that citizens rely on their government for decisive, compassionate action. Yet families felt compelled to protest in the streets. The perception given was that authorities were hiding information and dragging their feet to compensate victim’s families. And yet admiralty law is for the most part very settled and straightforward, is based on British common Law, with virtually every kind of maritime casualty has been adjudicated. Handing of this case illustrates how much we all stand to learn from the humble mail-boat.
We can also learn from how the recent sinking of the El Faro in Bahamian waters was handled: again, despite the many facts which appear to weigh against them, the ship owners and government regulators have been out in front of the media, settling quickly with family members, keeping the ball moving and the public informed. In today’s multi-media information-driven world, where what even the disempowered say online can be empowering, perception is extremely important.
As for the future, it is virtually certain that other maritime fatalities will strike the mailboat fleet again. If we could outlaw shipwrecks, or car accidents, it would have been done. From casualties flow changes: after the cruise liner Yarmouth Castle caught fire en route to Nassau in November 1965 and 90 people perished, the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations were overhauled. As a leading flag state provider, with nearly 1,200 vessels registered to the Bahamas (6th in the world at 5% of the world fleet), the Bahamas has an especially high duty towards its domestic fleet, and has the specialized resources at its disposal to investigate and transparently report on casualties.
The Spanish government’s mishandling of the $5 billion Bahamas-flagged Prestige oil spill beginning in 2002 cost them their jobs. A similar tanker spill from the oil terminals on New Providence or Grand Bahamas could be highly disruptive to tourism, fisheries, and the environment. When the Emerald Express was washed far ashore on Acklins by Hurricane Joaquin last year, there was fortunately no loss of life. Maritime crises are inevitable in a geographically delicate island nation through which major sea lanes pass, connecting oceans and continents. With the Panama Canal expanding this week, seaborne traffic will only increase.
What are the lessons that we can learn from mailboats? That adaptability to the local environment is key, that grafting foreign equipment to a new purpose in different lands can sometimes work quite well, but that ultimately the home-grown solutions prevail. That government and private investors can work together, so long as neither smothers the other. Entrepreneurialism and capitalism backed by government guarantees instills confidence by investors and captains in their vessels and businesses, and the local communities which are the end-users and beneficiaries. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to develop a Bahamas-class vessel, based on what the owners and captains have learned? Even better, to have them manufactured, say at the Grand Bahama Shipyard, and exported?