Mailboats Article 3 for Tribune Spring/Summer 2016: Abaco
Mailboat service to Abaco and the Abaco cays began as early as 1894 with the remnants of a salvaged vessel and continue to this day. Though the primary port is Marsh Harbour, mailboats have, over the years, also served Sandy Point, Cherokee Sound, Hope Town, Man-O-War Cay, Green Turtle Cay and other settlements. As an illustration of how adaptive Abaconians are, there is even a daily high-speed passenger boat connecting eastern Grand Bahama with Little Abaco Island instituted this century. There are also numerous freighters which serve Abaco directly from eastern Florida and Nassau, however in this article we will focus on those vessels that carried mail – as well as passengers and cargo – between the islands of the Bahamas (principally Nassau) and Abaco and its islands.
Though perhaps more illustrative than exhaustive, twelve vessels have spanned the past 120-plus years to connect Abaco with the capital, its markets, services and people. Until the 1950s these boats were often the only connection to the largest city in what was then still a colony. Writing in 1983, Steve Dodge, in his book Abaco, The History of an Out Island and its Cays, observed that “Despite the advent of airplane service to Abaco during the past thirty-five years, Marsh Harbour as well as other Abaco communities are still dependent on the mailboat for freight service, as anyone viewing the empty supermarket shelves on a Tuesday or a Wednesday can testify – ‘no milk until the mailboat comes in’ is a common refrain.” Although this author doubts that a delayed mailboat would cause such shortages today, still, the importance of these vessels to the survival of businesses, communities and even individuals in days of yore would be too easily overlooked. Captain Ernest Dean of Sandy Point for example, was inspired to spend 2.5 years building his first mailboat because he and his wife Eula would run out of milk waiting for the mailboat to come in from Nassau.
The dozen vessels, in chronological order were the sailing vessels Albertine Adoue and Arena, the motor vessels Priscilla, Content S., Stede Bonnet, Richard Campbell, Beluga, Almeta Queen, Arena, Tropical Trader, Deborah K. II, Captain Gurth Dean and Legacy. These range in size from the aforementioned Albertine Adoue which was made from the scraps of a larger vessel into a 60-foot schooner to a 160-foot steel freighter, the Legacy, with a salvaged lifeboat, the Beluga, ferrying cargo between Cherokee Sound and Crossing Rocks. The Content S. was a converted yacht which at one point was registered to Lake Champlain in Vermont, and was tended to by “The Queen,” the lifeboat from the British tanker Athelqueen which was sunk by an Italian submarine off Hope Town in 1942 – the boat was a gift from her grateful officers and crew and was featured in a painting by renown Abaco artist Alton Lowe, whose Albert Lowe Museum is a fine repository of mailboat ephemera.
The original Albertine Adoue was built by Kelley and Spear in Bath, Maine in 1890. She was 171 feet long and 36 feet wide and although a three-masted schooner was equipped with an auxiliary engine. The vessel was named for the wife of prominent businessman Bertrand Adoue of Galveston, Texas. He and his partner Jean Jacques Mistrot invested in blockade running in the American Civil War – apparently profitably. While bound from Philadelphia to Galveston with a cargo of coal, the ship foundered near Spanish Cay off Little Abaco on the 29th of March, 1894. Enterprising locals built a schooner from the timbers, with the resulting craft being 60 feet on deck with two masts. She was to serve the Bahamas as a mailboat from Nassau for 29 years under the same name. Her owners in 1926 were R. J. Farrington and William Augustus Roberts. Among her Bahamian captains were Hartley Roberts, Osbourne Roberts, Roland Roberts – all sons of William Augustus Roberts, her owner. In 1923 the Albertine Adoue was replaced by the motor vessel Priscilla. On Christmas Day 1930 the Albertine Adoue suffered the same fate as her namesake, and went aground in North Carolina laden with liquor during the Prohibition and was lost.
The Albertine Adoue was not popular with the government Commissioner in Hope Town, who wrote “It is impossible in these progressive days  to expect a mail service to be satisfactorily performed by a sailing vessel. Apart from speed there is no comfort or privacy to be obtained for passengers.” He further hoped that a motor vessel would “….take the place of this wind jammer.” The vessel nominated to take the schooner’s place was the Priscilla, a steel-hulled 100-footer propelled by a 115-horsepower Fairbanks Morse diesel engine. Rumored to have been a racing sail yacht, her contribution to mail service “significantly reduced the degree of Abaco’s isolation and made commerce more feasible.” With the implementation of wireless service to Nassau the same year, Dodge notes that what would have taken a fortnight before 1925 took just minutes in terms of transmission of information. According to Evan Loew the cook on board was his relative Osgood Loew, the mate was Howard Loew, and the Captain Hartley Roberts (same as with the Albertine Adoue). Although the Priscilla could never be as fast as a telegram, and was “no panacea,” her contribution to trade was considerable if imperfect. Among the other settlements she called, Green Turtle Cay was included. In August 1932 the vessel was “blown ashore and destroyed” during a hurricane. Another account, in Wayne Neely’s book “The Great Bahamian Hurricanes of 1899 and 1932,” more modestly states that “M/V Priscilla reported some damage to the structure of the boat.”
The Content S. was launched as the yacht Percianna II, having been built for Percy Hance by J. M. Densmore in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1920. In 1934, Hance sold it to Howard E. Spaulding of Shelburne Vermont and Palm Beach Florida. It lay unused in Florida for a number of years before being re-flagged to the Bahamas and re-purposed to inter-island trade, for which it was not ideally suited. In 1940 Nassau merchant Richard Wilson Sawyer purchased her with the name Contentand added the “S” presumably for “Sawyer.” Her Captain was Stanley Weatherford of Great Guana Cay, whose relatives confirm that he commanded her. According to “Pappa” Floyd Lowe, born 1920 and the erstwhile patriarch of Green Turtle Cay Abaco, the yacht was the “wrong ship” and “not a boat for mail service” on the Abaco-Nassau run, being narrow and deep draft and fitted out as a yacht, without the large cargo holds which would make such a ship profitable. Sawyer seems to have recognized this, as Content S. was only dedicated to Abaco service for about a year. It was better suited for its other purpose – carrying passengers in comfort. He chartered her out to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor for a tour of the islands early in their tenure in the colony.
In March 1942 she was shaken out of layup by the Duke to rescue survivors of two ships the O. A. Knudsen and Athelqueen from Abaco. The first batch of 38 men were picked up at Cross Harbour, the second group of 46 at Hope Town. Survivors mostly slept on deck – one of them later said she looked like the royal yacht in her finery. The Content S. was lost in a collision with the Foundation Aranmore off Cuba in 1946. The Queen was the affectionate term for the Athelqueen’s lifeboat which was given to Hope Town citizens as a gift from survivors (three of whom drowned trying to make it to shore). According to Vernon Malone The Queen was burned after its useful life shuttling people, mail and cargo to and from mailboats was expended.
The Stede Bonnet was launched at Symonette Shipyards in Nassau and Hog Island (Paradise Island) on 4 June, 1942. She was 119 feet long, 225 tons and her single diesel engine propelled her at 12 knots. Her captain was Lloyd Talmadge Albury of Man-O-War Cay. The boat’s original name was Royal Navy-issue: MM 194. According to Sir Ettienne Dupuch (“A Salute to Friend and Foe”), “British Admiralty contracted for two trawlers to be built in Nassau. They were launched in a ceremony by the Duke of Windsor. Intended for service in Singapore, which fell to the Japanese before they were commissioned and therefore never brought into action.” One became the Stede Bonnet, named after a famous pirate, the other the Church Bay, which later burned in downtown Nassau. An online commentator added this colorful rendition of the coconut telegraph: “That Omni present Short Wave Radio played its part in announcing the arrival of the Mail Boat. The Captain would simply key his mike on the ship’s radio and announce, “ Stede Bonnet reporting; just left East Side Marsh Harbour on the way to Hopetown. Someone please tell Mr. Robley Russell to bring the Tender out by Parrot Cay for freight and passengers. Stede Bonnet out.””
The mailboat Richard Campbell was built in 1937 by the enterprising Sir George William Kelly Roberts of Harbour Island, and named after his first son. The vessel was 85.6’ long, 16.3 feet wide, 8 feet deep and weighed 89 tons. She was a wooden sailing sloop (single mast) with an auxiliary motor. Her captain was named Russell – In the book “Islanders in the Stream” he and the mate were described as “a “Conchy Joe captain and mate and all-black crew.” The authors Saunders and Craton continue: “Cherokee Sounds was only the first of the six Abaco settlements at which the Richard Campbell called, following a routine that, though tedious, greatly raised Jack Ford’s admiration for the seamanship, efficiency and toughness of Captain Russell and his crew.” On the topic of Cherokee Sound, which was shallow and required shuttling of small vessels to carry cargo and people ashore, Captain Granville Bethel devised an ingenious way to supply the similarly isolated community of Crossing Rocks to the south – he salvaged a lifeboat from a torpedoed Allied freighter which had washed up there. According to his son Patrick, the small craft was renamed Beluga and plied its route from 1945 or so into the 1950s fitted with a small engine.
The Almeta Queen was built for War Supply in Toronto in 1942 and converted to sail in 1946. Captain Ernest Dean speaks of utilizing her services to tow one of his new-built vessels (the Captain Dean II) from Marsh Harbour to Nassau around 1965. At that time her captain was Sherwin Archer. Her owners were the Abaco Trading Company Ltd. of Nassau and she appears to have largely carried crawfish between Abaco, Florida and Nassau, so her progeny as a mailboat may be in doubt. In August 2007 was sighted in aerial photographs rotting on the River Platte of Argentina. Another vessel which was not exclusively a mailboat but which carried parcels and passengers was the sloop Arena, also skippered by owner Sherwin Archer, who became a senator for Abaco in 1964. His mate was his son Bobby. The Arena, which appears in the lovely book “Out Island Portraits” by Ruth Rodriguez, was supplanted in 1950 by the Tropical Trader, about which little is known. There was a Tropical Trader built in the Turks & Caicos in 1950 but it is listed as a sailing vessel and Dodge writes that the Abaco Tropical Trader was a motor vessel.
By 1970 a large steel diesel vessel had taken over the route from Nassau to Abaco carrying mail – the Deborah K II. Not believed to have replaced a similarly named ship in the Bahamas, this vessel was 348 tons, could carry 474 tons, was built in 1965, Bahamian flagged, and is believed to be still in service. This large vessel which has the lines of a European-built coaster, was for many years the primary link between Marsh Harbour at least and Nassau. In modern times Southern Abaco is served by the sizeable motor vessel Captain Gurth Dean. Owned by Captain Ernest Alexander Dean (Jr.) of Sandy Point and Nassau, the ship weighs 500 tons and can carry 600 tons of cargo. Built by Rodriguez Coden in Alabama she was launched on October 13th 1999. Her route takes her to Sandy Point, Moore’s Island, and Bullocks Harbour in the Berry Islands. Her captain is John Dean. Note that the dozen or so vessels built and skippered by the Dean family patriarch Captain Ernest Dean Sr. of Sandy Point are covered in a separate article.
The motor vessel Legacy, built by the same yard as Captain Gurth Dean in Alabama, is a roll on / roll off type ship (Ro/Ro) which is 160 feet long, 36 feet wide and 485 gross tons – also capable of carrying 600 tons of cargo. Thoroughly modern and shallow draft, it was built in 2002 and still calls at Marsh Harbour, Guana Cay, Green Turtle Cay and Nassau on a weekly basis. Commissioned by her owners, Dean’s Shipping Limited of Nassau for the specific Bahamas trade, this vessel represents a new generation of service to the islands – continuing a long line of entreprenurialship in shipbuilding and investing and calculated risk-taking that has covered a dozen decades, as many vessels, and everything from yachts to lifeboats to converted schooners and spongers to modern landing craft. It is worth noting that with the possible exception of the Deborah K. II, Abaco has avoided the trend of some other regions to purchase older ships from Europe and trade them until they become either dive sites or fodder for South American operators.