Mailboats Article 1 for Tribune Spring/Summer 2016:
Why write about mailboats? It is a question I have often been asked, most recently by a group of yachtsmen visiting from the States. When I describe my passion for these slow-plodding beasts of burden to the folks on the docks at Potters Cay or to friends and family members, they seem to understand, but not everyone does. And not every reader will. So here, after telling the tales of over 100 of these varied craft and the dozens of islands they serve, in the afore-gone features, goes.
In the early 1980s, when I was not yet a teenager, my parents – both expatriates who had lived several decades in the islands and honeymooned in Treasure Cay – took my three siblings and me on a mailboat voyage to Abaco. The voyage left quite an impression on us – being able to bring as many belongings as we wanted, to roam freely over the vessel, and to enjoy the fresh sea breeze the entire way was a thrill unmatched by air travel. It was also an unusual way for a expatriate family to travel at the time, though by no means unique, it was perhaps bohemian of us, or at least we thought so.
Once my brothers and sister and I figured out that we could get from Nassau to Harbour Island each way for about the cost of entry into Club Waterloo, we were hooked. From the late 1980s onwards Captain Moss of the Bahamas Daybreak III came to know us – the family that preferred to ride the mailboat. I was once challenged, by a resort owner on Briland, as to why I would possibly take the mailboat? I hadn’t really thought of the reasons – for some reason the idea of going to the airport and paying what I believed would be a lot more money seemed preposterous to me; something that rich people did. Ironically the prospect of flying seemed to me to cheapen the experience, as though stopping for a few minutes at Spanish Wells and then navigating the Devil’s Backbone with its hairpin turns, skimming the wreck of a sunken locomotive and brushing along the beach was a way of somehow earning the way to decadence on the island. Then again we stayed mostly at the modest Royal Palm rather than Pink Sands!
Somehow over the years Potter’s Cay dock worked its way into the family lore. Like the time our mother waved us off on the Daybreak at the crack of dawn, only to realize that we had taken the keys to her car, leaving her in a nightgown, downtown (thank goodness for understanding cab drivers!). Or the time that a girlfriend and I arrived there on the fishing vessel Sea Star, also at dawn, to wait for a ride as the sun rose over Nassau Harbour. Or the time that a group of friends joined us for bon voyage drinks at Big Daddy’s. At 11:30 pm I went over to the mailboat which was to carry us and informed the captain that we would return by midnight. However he misunderstood me, thought we were aboard, and cast off just as we ran up the dock to do a peir-head leap, just in time! Or the time when we turned back to the dock late at night because the captain’s nephew, who was serving as crew, forgot his radio – it was handed to us by outstretched arms, in those days before iPhones, from another mailboat by understanding sailors.
Have I taken more mailboat trips than other Bahamians? Not by a long shot. Half a dozen voyages to and from Harbour Island, a few more perhaps on the modern Bo Hengy and Bo Hengy II. A longer cruise on the United Star to Acklins Island, on which we shared the voyage with the new doctor-in-residence from the Philippines. I asked him his specialty – he replied that he was a veterinarian! There was a voyage from Nassau to Black Point Exuma, San Salvador and Rum Cay which didn’t end so well when the boat ran aground off Port Nelson and I received a cold reception when I was rowed ashore, as I was (correctly) taken for a real estate speculator.
Perhaps the happiest mailboat trip was the one which ended in Potter’s Cay at dawn. The aforementioned girlfiend and I boarded about midnight the day after Christmas Junkanoo and voyaged to Bullock’s Harbour, Berry Islands. From there we set off for Moore’s Island’s only settlement – Hard Bargain. But halfway there we were startled to wake to commotion and see a sheer wall of white steel looming out of our porthole. In all the excitement of loading and unloading the cargo our otherwise earnest skipper had forgotten to deliver the mail to the Berry Islands, and was having a cruise ship divert to complete the errand for him. We spent a night in Hard Bargain, alongside a vessel named “Jesus Savior Pilot Me,” listening to the tales of old timers, on an island where strains of Yoruba were recorded as recently as the 1970s. From there we voyaged to nearby Sandy Point and the mailboat lay over for a few days. But we were eager to get back to Nassau and accepted a graciously offered ride aboard the Sea Star, arriving in time to celebrate New Year’s Junkanoo in the capital. A memorable trip indeed.
Nowadays one has the added convenience of bringing a vehicle, as we have done to Abaco and North Eleuthera. And I once brought a bicycle to Mastic Point, Andros. But as many readers will know, renting a vehicle in the family islands can be as simple as asking around, finding the car, and leaving the agreed daily rate in cash, along with the keys, behind the visor. My brother and I once went camping in Eleuthera to be met with the same kind of queries: why not stay in a hotel? For the same reasons one takes the mailboat – to get that little bit closer to nature, or at least to think you are. To get that little bit closer to the people who populate these wonderful islands, to hear and feel the breeze, not see it through an airplane portal at 3,000 feet.
Why take a mailboat? If I had to be entirely honest, the motivations were mostly selfish. In my teens and twenties when I was single it was to get away from Nassau and all those married people after the crescendo of Christmas and New Year’s during Christmas holidays home from school and college. Later it was to look at land to invest in by being able to see several islands on one trip, always moving forward, rather than fly to one island, return to Nassau, fly to another island, go back to Nassau, and so on. Partly I was escaping work at the family business – playing hooky as it were. Partly there were romantic aspirations – find a companion and head off together into the unknown for a few days, by picking the first mailboat to leave, wherever it would take you.
Pack a cooler full of sodas, beer, and sandwiches and you never know what daybreak, or the next wave, will bring you. Perhaps to an island that wasn’t even on the itinerary, but where the captain needs to visit his sweetheart du jour. It’s happened more than once. Besides, when the crew catches or buys fresh conch or fish, they are just as likely to share it, perhaps in exchange for a cold beer, a fair trade. That line trailing behind the ship may produce a fearsome barracuda, or it might just be trailing a pair of trousers being naturally washed by the wake. On a mailboat, you just never know for sure, and I guess that is the mystique – along with necessity, transport, trade, friends and family and a host of other rational reasons – that drives people like me back to mailboats. And I hope – as my parents did – that my son catches the bug as well. He is after all named after one of the communities dear to our hearts and accessed by the Bahamas Daybreak III those decades ago – Dunmore Town.