Mailboats Article 9 for Tribune Spring/Summer 2016: Dean Dynasty
Captain Ernest Dean was born the son of a fishing boat captain in 1915 in Sandy Point, Abaco. His parents were James Alexander Dean (1889-1966) and Leah Hunt Dean (1886-1923) who died when Ernest was a boy of eight years. His father’s fishing smack was a two-master named Champion and he had a part ownership interest in the vessel. At the time Sandy Point was not connected with other communities in Abaco except by the sea and the people of the small settlement eked out their existence by fishing and sustenance farming. A year after his mother’s death, at age nine Ernest was sent to assist the lighthouse keeper of Cay Sal Light in far southern Bahamas, bordering Cuba. In exchange the boy would learn to read and write, as the keeper, Chatham Albury, had educated Ernest’s uncle the same way.
At the age of 14 Ernest served about his father’s schooner the Champion and by 17 the young man was in command. He would remain a captain – and very much a community leader – since, and until his death in the early 2000s. Much of the material of this article is drawn from his autobiography entitled “Island Captain,” co-written by Gary W. Woodcock and published by White Sound Press in 1997. Ernest first met Eula Clarke of Cherokee Sound when he was 18, in about 1933. She was the daughter of Wilfred and Lillian Clarke. They were married on November 19, 1936, a union that would last until her death almost 60 years later. The wedding had to wait until Ernest had built them a house next to his father’s on West Bay Street, Sandy Point. Together they kept a shop – or rather she kept a shop, as he was mostly at sea – called E. and E. Grocery and Dry Goods, the motto of which was – and is – “all under one roof.”
A home wasn’t the only thing that Captain Ernest built with his hands – in order to enter the mail freighting business he spent three years hand crafting, mostly alone, a 35-foot sailing vessel named Captain Dean after his father, himself, and his infant sons. Begun in 1949 and not launched until February 1951, the boat was made from hand-hewn pine from pine fields as far afield as Hole-in-the-Wall Light and madeira and dogwood roots from Gorda Cay. The roots of these hardwoods had to be dug out by hand, and when found unsuitable for the joinery required, were rejected. He hand-cut the keel in the forest then towed it with a small dingy back to Sandy Point from Cross Harbour, sometimes drifting windless for hours, other times tacking against the wind. It was back-breaking work and only someone gifted with true determination would have completed it. With as much help from local craftsmen as they could afford, their income supplemented by Ernest’s fishing, the couple achieved it.
Ernest cut and bent the sails and headed to Nassau to convince the Colonial Secretary in charge of mailboats – a Bahamian – that he deserved a mail contract to serve Sandy Point, Moore’s Island, and the Berry Islands. At the time there was no mail service to those small communities, and the one person who had tried, Charles Sawyer from Marsh Harbour in his quaintly named vessel Ought to Go, had failed to make a go of it. But Dean persisted, pointing out that the fishermen who carried the mails provided unreliable and intermittent service and young families like his could go weeks without fresh milk from the capital for their children. Eventually the Commissioner relented, and the Captain Dean was put to work with the first mail service to southern Abaco and the Berry Islands. The craft was sloop-rigged, 30 feet at the keel, 40 feet on deck, with a 15-foot beam and a five-foot draft. At first she had no engines but relied instead on the Trade Winds to propel her.
The Captain Dean plied her trade, eventually adding Sweeting’s Cay, Grand Bahama to a busy route. Her owner said that “she was built strong because my life and the lives of my crew depended on her.” Carrying people rather than just cargo changed Captain Dean’s perspective: “I couldn’t think just about the money anymore. I was providing a service at reasonable fees and fares that these people hadn’t had before. They were depending on me to keep going. …Passengers ate what the crew ate, basically fishing boat food.” He made room for six to eight passengers as well as four crew to work the cargo and manage the vessel. As he wrote, “the government paid me only to carry the mail and set all the rates for freight and passage. Any passenger fares and freight charges were paid to me.” Eventually an engine was added to the vessel. In 1953 Ernest Dean released the Captain Dean to his son James to go crawfishing with and purchased the larger, wooden-built Margaret Rose. She was five feet longer on deck (45 feet). The vessel was also sloop-rigged and had a Perkins diesel engine.
Dean only ran the Margaret Rose for “a few years,” before trading up again, this time for the 112-foot motor ship Clermont, which had twin General Motors engines, but was “big, old, wooden, and leaky.” By this point Dean was supplementing his income by hauling live crawfish from the various out-ports to Nassau. He also tried carrying live conch, but it didn’t pay due to unscrupulous receivers who would take the conch on credit then refuse to pay, claiming the mollusks had died in his absence. The crawfish was packed on ice purchased at Butler’s in Nassau. Dean rationalized that if the ice melted the crawfish were in cold water, but if refrigeration – which was more expensive – failed, then the creatures died and rotted. After less than a decade, in 1962 the Clermont sank off Abaco. Fortunately there were no passengers and the two boats – with mail bags – managed to make it to shore. The Captain Dean then filled in as the mailboat again.
Right away Dean ordered the Captain Dean II, which was built by Johny Albury and Walter Hatcher in Marsh Harbour. She was wooden with a 60-foot keel, a 14-foot beam, and five feet of draft. As well as the main deck where cargo was handled and stored, the passengers and crew quarters fitted out, etc. there was a top deck and pilot house for the officers to steer the ship from. The boat was built entirely of native woods, 4 X 4 inch with two-inch planking. Rather than sails propulsion came solely from two Perkins diesel engines. To have the hull fitted out with housing Captain (later Senator) Sherwin Archer towed the hull behind his vessel the Anita Queen. Six years later, in 1968, the Captain Dean II caught fire and sank between the Berry Islands and Abaco. Two boats with seven people each, including a four-year-old and a two-year-old survived a blustery night and were blown to Whale Cay, Berry Islands using the flat oar blades as sails. To Captain Dean’s immense relief everyone survived to be flown to Nassau from Chub Cay.
Meanwhile Dean chartered the mailboat Captain Moxey to fulfill the mail run to Abaco and the Berry Islands – a common but exhausting practice of substituting boats that continues today. True to form Dean commissioned the Captain Dean III from St. Augustine, Florida. The lumber mills were closing and more men were returning to their communities, becoming fishermen or farmers, settling down and providing a growing market for building materials, fuel for their small boats, and obviously groceries. But the boatyards in Abaco were no longer building large vessels, hence the look westwards to the States for newbuilds. The Captain Dean III was 90 feet on the keel, 18 feet wide and had a five foot draft. She could carry 16 passengers and had a large cargo capacity. She was wooden and had a large Caterpillar engine. Launched in 1969 she barely made it to Freeport because the seams had not properly soaked and sealed, but they made it. Plus sawdust and wood chips from the construction clogged the bilges in the Gulf Stream, with a northern wind. Eventually in 1973 the vessel was sold to interests in Bimini to provide mail service there, and was sunk on the Mackey Shoal Buoy between Bimini and the Berry Islands.
The Captain Dean IV was in the works soon enough, and Dean’s son James filled the mail run with his boat the Miss Dean in the interim. This ship was also wood and very similar to her predecessor, only stronger. Ernest Dean handed command of the Captain Dean IV over to his son John and in about 1977 the vessel was lost off Abaco in a storm. Fortunately a Mayday was sent and received by the US Coast Guard, who managed to hoist all 15 men and women aboard their helicopter. The ship was salvaged and towed to Miami where it was learned that several planks had been stove in. After that Captain Dean decided to built his next vessel, the Captain Dean V, of steel, and so he did. It would be “the first steel boat in all of the Bahamas designed and built just for the mail service.” At that time there were steel boats operating in the Bahamas, but most of them originated in Europe or the US Gulf. The Captain Dean V ran from 1979 to 1985, first under Ernest Dean then under John Dean. It sank at the Frederick Street dock in Nassau in a fire that claimed the life of Captain Stanford Curry. Her hulk was sold to Haitian interests.
Captain Ernest supplemented his runs to Abaco and the Berry Islands with calls at Freeport, Andros, and Cat Island when time permitted. On assurances that he would be given the mail contract he constructed the Lady Eula, named after his wife. She was 90 feet on keel and had a single Caterpillar engine: “a very spacious and modern boat.” Ernest’s son John took over running her to Andros, Freeport and Cat Island. At this time there were political moves by individual island groups to have their “own” mailboat and skipper, as in from that island. Some resented being served by an Abaco skipper and entrepreneur. So as he had done in Bimini, Captain Dean sold Lady Eula to interests in Cat Island. Due to a navigational error the boat was run aground on San Salvador and pummeled on the coast. Finally in 1986 Captain Dean modified the scope of his ambition and built a smaller vessel, the Champion II (after his father’s fishing smack on which he had experienced his first command. She was 75 feet long – that way she could trade to the US without having to obtain a load line certificate required of longer vessels.
Decades after having built her by the sweat of his brow Captain Dean and his daughter came upon her amongst a crowd of fishing craft at Potter’s Cay Dock. It was 1993, 44 years after her keel was hewn in the Abaco pine fields. A main on board protested that the boat wasn’t the Captain Dean, to which Ernest retorted “This was the Captain Dean. I should know, I built her. Captain Dean’s beloved wife Eula died in 1995. By then Ernest was a revered patriarch in the community of Sandy Point, and his opinion on matters such as the new high speed ferry’s terminus in his community was highly valued. His family continue to operate their store was well fishing and passenger vessels such as the Nay Dean and the Mia Dean throughout the Bahamas as well as to the US. In June of 1988 Governor-General Taylor presented Captain Dean with the Queen’s Medal along with a Certificate of Honour. In 1995 he was invested with the British Empire Medal, again at Government House in Nassau, this time by Governor General Turnquest. Captain Dean learned of these awards via mailboat. When his wife’s body was returned to Sandy Point from Nassau she was carried home – to the strains of the song Amazing Grace – across the bar to the community by their son’s mailboat, the Mia Dean, which is still plying today.