Welcome to MailboatsBahamas, a new blog dedicated to the gathering and preservation of the history of the hundreds of generally small inter-island freighters which have served the many islands of the Bahamas since probably the 1700s. Many were converted yachts, ex-navy vessels, all of them with colorful, sometimes dubious histories, put to work in an archipelagic outpost of the British empire.
This is a highly interactive and cooperative effort, since I am based in the New York area and only return to Nassau a few times a year. I will be asking for input from local historians, captains, photographers, tourists, and travelers.
So far as I know, this has never been done before – these little ships have plied on in relative obscurity, functional work horses carrying church pews, passengers, mail, animals, fish, coffins, sewing needles, fresh produce, and everything in between. These vessels have been and continue to be the lifeblood of small scattered communities, even in the age of affordable and fast air service.
Personally my family and I have been riding mailboats from Nassau to Abaco and North Eleuthera since the late 1970s, when my Dad, Swedish Consul at the time, arranged a trip to Treasure Cay. The mailboat arrived at the West, or back end of Marsh Harbour, through the Marls. When I was a student it was a special treat to invite visiting guests on “adventure” trips further afield – the Berry Islands, Sandy Point, Hard Bargain on Moore’s Island, Exumas, San Salvador, Rum Cay, Acklins, Crooked, Inagua….. Each voyage an exciting adventure.
Though I’ve worked aboard over 110 small vessels since 1987, serving as captain of many of them on the delivery route from New England to the Caribbean, I have never commanded or served on a Bahamian mailboat. However one night east of Exuma, in open deep water, I woke in my cabin around 3 am because the boat had an unusual motion. I stumbled bleary-eyed to the nearby bridge and noticed that it was completely empty! As a natural instinct I took the wheel, steadied the vessel, and kept her on an easterly course, towards our destination. After about half an hour I heard a lot of banging and swearing and looked down a shaft to the engine room, where the portly middle-aged captain was hammering away at some mechanical equipment, trying to get it to work better! When he returned to the bridge he just quietly took the wheel and I returned to my bunk…..
The progenitor to this project has been four years of research into 111 German and Italian submarine patrols to the Bahamas area during World War II. Those subs sank 125 or more Allied merchant ships, casting 6,000 mariners into the water on lifeboats and life-rafts. Over 300 of them landed in the Bahamas or Turks & Caicos – places like Abaco, Great Inagua, Hope Town, West Caicos, Grand Turk, Acklins, and Crooked Island. That research is blogged about at uboatsbahamas.blogspot.com or simply www.uboatsbahamas.com. The book should come out in late 2013.
I was fascinated to learn the colorful and myriad histories of a dozen or so historical vessels plying the inter-island trade. Here is a snapshot of some of them:
- Content S.: ex-Percianna II a magnificent yacht, rescued men from O A Knudsen and Athelqueen
- Monarch of Nassau: ex-Sir Charles Orr – delivered from the UK to Bahamas in just 19 days
- Ena K.: Built in Harbour Island and skippered by mariners from that charming island, plied to Miami
- Betty K.: the original was also an 87-footer plying the Nassau-Miami route in the 1940s
- Air Pheasant: a former US Navy patrol boat which went on to serve Inagua, Crooked after the war
- Stede Bonnet: built by Symonette Shipyards in Nassau as a minesweeper for the Royal Navy
- Richard Campbell: served Abaco and known to give passengers a ride to remember
- Arena: one of the last of the inter-island sailing sloops, used to be a humble fishing vessel
- Bahama Daybreak: the modern steel freighter on which my siblings and I visited Harbour Island
- Spanish Rose: when I inquired for a ride in the 1980s the crew asked if I was a “white rasta”!
Documentation on these vessels is spread all over – reports of hurricane damage to vessels in the 1800s, Commissioner’s reports, the National Archives, and all over the national local papers across over hundreds of years. Their owners and captains were leaders in the community, often elected officials for the constituencies. They literally held these small communities together – bringing children back from school in the capital, making sure the cascarilla bark unique to Acklins and Crooked island made it to market and end-users like Compari, supplying spare parts for motors and vehicles, delivering cigarettes, canned goods, alcohol, a pool table, whatever was required.
As for timing, the plan is to post what little is known on each vessels in a standard format such as name, date built, skipper, trade routes, size/dimensions, photo (where available) history, etc. As more is known, particularly about more modern vessels, by gathering information and visiting skippers at Potter’s Cay Dock to ask questions in person, then more will be amended and posted.
The larger ambition is to create a small illustrated booklet about these vessels, possibly with the help of the National Archives or other historical institutions, with a simple page or so on each vessel. This is not static history – blog posts will intentionally be incomplete until more information is obtained. I encourage you to contribute to this cooperative effort – particularly with photos and memories.