S/V Arena, ex-sponging sloop, mailboat serving Abaco, 1940s under Capt. Sherwin Archer

Source: Ruth Rodriguez, c/o Capt. Paul Aranha


PAST NAMES: not known
DIMENSIONS: c.70 feet
YEAR BUILT: not known – most likely 1890s to 1920s (during the sponging heyday)
BUILDER: not known – likely at an Abaco shipyard
EARLY CAREER: sponging on the Bahama Banks
BAHAMAS CAREER: after sponging collapsed was one of last sailing mailboats Abaco-Nassau through the early 1950s
CAPTAINS: Capt. Sherwin Archer
FATE: not known
NOTES: see below excerpt from the manuscript of “U-Boats in the Bahamas” (Eric Wiberg)


The inter-island sloop Arena under Captain Sherwin Archer left Marsh Harbor Abaco bound for Nassau on the afternoon of Friday the 6th of March, 1942. The motorized mail boats Stede Bonnett and Prescillahad been plying the trade from Nassau to Abaco, there was even an air service in the form of a 21-seat Catalina amphibious plane. Captain Archer and his son Bobby, the relief captain, used their 50-foot converted sponge fishing sailing sloop to supplement the service. His sloop was to ply the traditional trade for a decade from 1940 to 1950. Then, it was upgraded and an engine was installed. As well, the Arena was supplanted by the motor vessel Tropical Trader – and thus ended the days of sailing merchants between Abaco and the colony’s capital. 

Sherwin Archer, Captain and Senator
Source: The Abaco Account, “Captain Sherwin Archer Named Abaco Senator,” Jan. 31, 1964

The night of 6thand 7th of March was fairly calm, with a light southeasterly wind. There was a persistent swell which crashed against the base of the cliffs at the Hole-in-the-Wall Light at the very southern tip of Great Abaco Island. The Hole-in-the-Wall Light illuminates the deep water northern edge of the forty-mile wide Northeast Providence Channel. Built in 1836 and completed in 1838, it was the first lighthouse built in the Bahamas by the Imperial Lighthouse Service. The light stands at 168 feet height and its single white flash illuminates the sea for 23 miles.
Arena was navigating past Schooner Bay and towards the re-assuring beacon after the midnight change of watch. Suddenly, at 2:00 am, the eerie arc of white light from the lighthouse illuminated something incongruous and startling – what could it be? There was a raft of two small lifeboats bobbing in the water outside the breakers. The men were calling in heavily Germanic accents – and signaling with small lights. Could they be Germans attacking the Bahamas? Who were they? Arena eased off the main sail and bore down on the boats – not too close to the reefs – to hear their story. The Captain, called over that they were shipwrecked Allied seaman from Norway.
They didn’t know the coast line and didn’t want to attempt a landing without local guidance. Was there any way that Captain Archer could divert his course and take the men under tow?  Faced with an unexpected humanitarian mission, in a remote British colony which had barely been touched by the war, Captain Archer and his passengers and crew responded in the finest traditions of the sea. They invited the injured and crowded men on board from the two lifeboats and accommodated them as best they could. But then they faced a quagmire – the Arena was just a sailing boat and there wasn’t much wind to propel it. On top of that, with two heavy life boats in tow and 39 men on board, it would sail much more slowly.
Since the O. A. Knudsen’s boat had a motor in it, and they had salvaged 25 gallons of gasoline from their sinking mother ship, it was decided that the rescued boat would take the sloop in tow. This they did, tying the Arena behind the motor boat, and the sailing life boat behind the Arena. With a local on board, the motorized lifeboat travelled at about two or three knots around Southwest Point and into the lee of the wind where it was calmer. By sunrise, about 5:30 am, they were passing the abandoned settlement of Alexandria. By 6:30 am, they had rounded Cross Harbor Point, seven miles up the coast. The nearest settlement was a lumber camp named Cornwall. In it were three white families and several black Bahamians, a small church, and even a nurse.
The motley group approached the community by the export pier, which was the terminus of a small temporary railroad. The Arena’s men steered the convoy for this shallow point. Then the sloop anchored and the two life-boats were tied up along the jetty. The men were shuttled ashore. The word was passed quickly to the managers and workers at the mill – there were three dozen shipwreck survivors that needed to be looked after. Work would have to be put on hold for the day. Soon the owner of the mill, Abaco Lumber Company, local Member of Parliament for Abaco, Mr. John Wilson (J. W.) Roberts, was alerted.
From that point, whatever was needed was put at the disposal of the survivors, including a radio to contact Nassau. From there, the motor boat, Content S. was dispatched, along with Dr. Lyon, who was sent by the Chief Medical Officer for the colony, Dr. John Merrill Cruikshank, as well as a nurse. Transportation was summoned in the form of the converted yacht Content S – as well as a rail car to move the men from the rail head to the community, and whatever else was required. The lumber mill was essentially cut off without reliable road access to Marsh Harbour, the main community on the island.
The Norwegians wryly noted that “a sailing craft supplied information on a landing place.” It is possible that the Knudsen officers and Arena crew decided to cut free the second, sailing lifeboat. Later Captain Granville Bethel of nearby Cherokee Sound, found an abandoned World War II lifeboat near Crossing Rocks, on the southeast coast of Abaco, north of Hole-in-the-Wall. He towed it to Cherokee Sound, renamed it Beluga, and was engaged by the government to use it to supply mail and freight to the community of Crossing Rocks, then without access by road, for the next few decades. In either event, the crew from the lifeboats no doubt savoured being on a larger vessel, seeing fresh faces, and eating fresh food.
The most likely landing place can be deduced by considering two factors: a) they were landed at a railhead (“Cornwall, Abaco Island, where a landing was effected at the end of a railroad track at 08:00 EWT”), and b) it took them six hours to reach the rail head. First, there was but one rail road terminus in the area at the time, and that was on the eastern end of Cross Harbour. The second factor in determining where the boats landed is a simple analysis of time and distance. The speed of the motorboat can be estimated at two knots. In fact it was marginally faster, since some accounts state the schooner was sighted at 2:30 am, and it would have taken at least half an hour to discuss a plan, transfer wounded crew to the schooner, and implement the new towing arrangements. Also, some accounts give the arrival at Cornwall between 7:00 and 7:30 am. These facts mitigate in favour of the little convoy achieving about 2.5, perhaps three knots. The distance from a point just a bit off the Hole-in-the-Wall Light to the southwestern tip of Abaco is four miles, from there to next headland is six miles, and from the headland to the rail terminus is two miles. Total distance: twelve miles. Likely destination: the jetty at Cross Harbour.




The coastline at Cross Harbour showing abandoned Alexandria Settlement
Source: author’s collection, courtesy of Orjan Lindroth for diverting his airplane.
What confuses the issue is that there were as many as perhaps half a dozen Cornwall lumber camps, as they migrated from forest to forest for uncut timber. But only one of them at that time had a rail head at this place. Evidence of the rail head still exists. Lund described the place as “… a Negro island with only three white families.” The only other candidate in the vicinity would be Crossing Rocks, which is on the windward or more exposed side of Great Abaco and further to the north. But reaching there would have entailed crossing the reef and the breakers which prohibited a landing to the south, and there was no rail head at Crossing Rocks.
The actual camp was some miles inland from where the railroad vented to the sea. The men were in for a bumpy ride on a lumber truck over unpaved roads which were rutted from the rainy season. Said Lund, “…We were quartered in a chapel and given first aid and bandages by a Negro nurse….” Johansen must have been gingerly carried ashore in an improvised stretcher.
The Survivors Statementindicates that “the British Admiralty was notified of the crew’s plight via radio to Nassau.” The men must have been greatly relieved to be onshore, despite the sand flies of the coast and the pervasive mosquitoes of the interior. They would have slept soundly, though for the injured it must have been a challenge to manage their pain and adjust to being on solid land for the first time in months. The next day, the little community had to transport 38 out of their 39 new charges back to the rail road terminus to meet a rescue vessel.