Mailboats Article 15/Final for Tribune Spring/Summer 2016: Potters Cay Future

Mailboats Article 15/Final for Tribune Spring/Summer 2016: Potters Cay Future

From looking at the press and applying other models, some basic truths seem to emerge about financing a sector like mailboats. As Captain Ernest Dean’s early experience shows, insurance is very important – and expensive – as boats catch fire and sink, and sometimes persons are killed aboard them. They can also cause environmental damage far beyond their economic value. Any shipping or maritime endeavor is cyclical. 

While the government has sought to stabilize critical national infrastructure such as mailboats, it is impossible to iron out all the troughs and peaks in a global economy ruled by supply and demand. One example is fuel subsidies: neither the owners nor the sponsoring government will always be happy, with one side (say, the owners) claiming it is not enough, and the other (government) claiming at times it is too much – which at times like this with low fuel prices, can be true. But without a fuel subsidy communities like Duncan Town Ragged Island or Port Nelson, Ragged Island, which don’t have regular air service, would be effectively cut off.

Even if the owners operate a route at a loss (not good for anyone in the long term), they still need subsidies to call on those ports. Without them, they might go out of business. One technique is to peg the subsidy to a set price: fuel goes above that price and the government compensates on a percentage basis. Below that price, no subsidy is offered. As for freight and passenger rates, it is my understanding that these are also set by the government and standardized, enabling even those of modest means the opportunity to conduct business, obtain medical care, and see family and friends in Nassau and on the islands where they have people. If I were asked whether I would change the fuel subsidies or tariffs for cargo and passengers, I would suggest just leaving them alone.

Risk may be managed, not eliminated. The mailboat market place already has a high barrier to entry. The US is the preferred builder, and financing new vessels requires considerable up-front investment and risk. Because of their own subsidies, US shipyards tend to be very expensive when compared globally. The Bahamian investors who take those risks deserve to be rewarded. And the administrative burden of keeping vessels, crew, safety equipment and certifications up-to-date grows every year.
In conclusion, if there is one item this author and Nassuvian would advocate for, it would be wreck removal. It’s not a particularly sexy topic when compared with the colorful vessels and ports, however it is nonetheless a critical one. We’ve talked about 200 or more vessels, but without a place to tie up in the capital, their cargo and people could not get ashore. I knew someone who abandoned an old car in the bush out west, only to be called by the police weeks later and politely asked to move it. 

But the same does not happen with vessels. Owners and their insurers may wrangle for so long that it costs more to remove a wreck than to abandon it. Then it becomes the government’s problem, to attempt to adjudicate, to order removal, and in remove the wreck. On July 28th 2014 ZNS aired footage of the Lady D, a fairly modern (22 year-old) mailboat serving seven communities in Andros, sinking at its berth just east of the old PI Bridge. The channel is fairly shallow there, so most of the vessel is still above water and clearly visible. It has also blocked this invaluable bit of real estate for nearly two years. No one can claim ignorance of this blemish on our national image and trade.

In 2009 a Bahamian salvage company in Freeport I worked for at the time rasised a similar-sized vessel which was completely submerged, also at a busy dock-face, in 4-6 hours. When the casualty occurred, I fail to understand how there were not sufficient crash pumps from other vessels or on shore. The fact is that if someone in authority puts their mind to it, they could have the Lady D’s hull temporarily sealed, the water pumped out long enough for her to be towed to a nearby boat yard, where she could be hauled out of the water and out of the way of other mailboats, and the millions of tourists who see her annually from the bridges. Yes, the Lady D’s removal will cost money. But the owners and insurers can be easily ascertained, and while they sort out those details, the boats would be out of harm’s way on shore – perhaps sold to offset costs? Do it first and bill them later.

Potter’s Cay is indisputably the capital of mailboats nationally – the only place they consistently congregate. Though it lies beneath bridges heavily trafficked by tourists and is passed hundreds of times a day by various vessels, many of them filled with tourists. Locals and tourists alike drive parallel to it in droves daily. Probably all Bahamians have at some point eaten seafood landed at Potter’s Cay. Yet as a society, the island and its vital business is virtually invisible to many of us, perhaps even more so the younger generation.

Potter’s Cay is .75 miles long and only 75 yards wide. Starting at the western end, there are the ro-ro mailboats and open-market ramp-style vessels, some of them owned and operated by Bahamas Ferries, serving most of the islands. Then the Fiesta Mailboat docks on the northwest tip, and beneath the Sir Sidney Poitier (western) bridge cluster a number of mid-size to large fishing boats. Then we have a travesty: a ship was abandoned right between the two bridges, taking up a huge area of roughly an acre which could easily be occupied by half a dozen other vessels, but it is now rendered useless. If Potter’s Cay is to remain vibrant, relevant and picturesque, the hulk needs to be removed. Recycling of the steel could offset the cost.

East of the wreck, also littered by the hulks of Lady Tasha and other boats, lies a small fleet of what appear to be Haitian cargo boats. It seems these are what is left of the sailboat fleet which used to utilize the southeast corner of Arawak Cay. They are loaded to the gills with bicycles, mattresses, and other miscellaneous cargo, some of which litters the dockside. Recently the free access to walk around the island has been cut off by a fence erected by one of the warehouse operators. As a result more junk is likely to clutter this area unless something is done. Moving east and out from under the original PI bridge, the wharf is dominated by mailboats of the modern type, lining the north pier to the northeast corner, which is home to a number of large, long, ro-ro type ramp boats. These also dominate the eastern jetty, which is hemmed in by a current-ripped reef marked by a rusting pole.

To the southeast of Potter’s Cay a number of conventional modern mailboats line the wharf, then the wooden Current Pride, then an assortment of mid-size to small fishing vessels. The channel they must use, between private yacht slips to the south and the cay itself, is very narrow, sufficient but only barely. If a large yacht is berthed on the outside slip and two or more mailboats are docked side by side on the cay, passage is effectively blocked. The problem can be remedied by removing one of the yacht jetties, or prohibiting yachts from tying at the end, or mailboats from double-docking. On the other side of the causeway are more smallish fishing vessels, a number of them appearing to be no longer actively fishing. These lead to the dock where the Bo Hengy II and others dock.

This brings us to the land-side of the cay: there are two clusters of seemingly derelict containers, a larger one at the western end, between the new bridge and the ocean (I saw Capt. Tom Hanna and his team clearing some of these in March) – they take up parking spaces, and some are used for office and storage purposes. The others are scattered lightly in front of the fort at the eastern end, and some of them, too, are used for storage and office space by owners. Probably this space could be put to better use, and unused equipment cleared away to provide more parking for the many passengers on the dozens of vessels. Finally there are the buildings: a dozen or so mailboat and passenger companies have set up make-shift retail offices in old containers and trailers, the largest of which is the cluster of trailers belonging to Bahamas Ferries. These facilities all offer critical services to passengers regarding tickets, scheduling, luggage, and freight.

The yellow government building to the east is a warehouse which seems to be clean and well run, and sells farm seed during the day. There are fences separating some of the waterfront from the causeway, but I am not aware of when the fences are closed, as mailboats leave at all hours. To the east are more parking spaces, neatly laid out, a cluster of semi-abandoned containers, then Bladen’s Battery, built in the late 1780’s and restored in 1949 and again in 1990, and largely eclipsed by commercial activity. Behind the large dock master’s building is an enclosure on land containing dozens of small vessels, including regatta sloops.

Leaving aside the question of the condition and hygiene of the seafood stalls on the causeway (the acres of conch shells prevalent in the 1970s and 80s have been removed, and a good deal of the conch shack business has moved to Arawak Cay, along with container traffic), there arises the final issue of utilization of the buildings between the bridges. Most of them appear to have very active tenants: rats. In the early 1990s my brothers and friends would stop in Big Daddy’s daiquiri bar there in the evenings, and entertain ourselves by trying to hit the rats with empty bottles. In the afternoons it was a nice place to meet the mailboat skippers. At one point the Taiwanese government tried to farm shrimp there, and before that I recall seeing sea turtles splayed out, upside down, for sale. But nowadays, aside from some basic warehousing the buildings are mostly derelict and abandoned. Though forklifts busily inject some life, the overwhelming prospect of the area is of abandonment.

Potter’s Cay is a major economic engine for locally grown produce, from frozen lobster tails from Spanish Wells and beyond to farmed goods, and unique Bahamian products like cascarilla from Acklins and Crooked. For the small and important few who remain behind on the home islands, raising families, crops, and maintaining churches, schools, post offices and clinics for future generations, not to mention manning the ballot boxes, it would seem to be in the government’s best interests to invest in this incubator of progress. Errant vessel owners and their insurers should not be allowed to dump old steel in the waters of our nation’s finest harbor, any more than the government permit a truck to be abandoned in Rawson’s Square. 

Either end of Potter’s Cay, while imperfectly maintained, exudes the crisp pace of inter-island trade and travel being conducted fairly and efficiently. Not so the middle sector. Without adequate dockfront and a hygienic, safe platform for operators and passengers, this important commercial hub will remain handicapped. Certainly tourists won’t be attracted to it, which is a pity because Potter’s Cay offers some of the most authentically Bahamian experiences – visually, historically, edibly, and in terms of hands-on travel.

Potter’s Cay should be the commonwealth’s pride and joy, connecting the capital and its banking high-rises with Paradise Island, the cradle of our all-important tourism product. Like Prince George’s Dock extending into the western harbor to accommodate cruise ships, Potter’s Cay is home and haven for our island family and the captains and sailors who bring them to and from their communities. Yet new arrivals are greeted by a very slovenly core of Potter’s Cay – one which could be invested in, reinvigorated, and turned around with a combination of capital and innovation. After all, Potter’s Cay is not only situated in the center of the capital, but serves as the hub and spoke – the economic as well as social heart of the nation. We need to ensure it keeps pumping, keeping the furthest spokes on the hub connected with the capital.

While commerce by mailboat remains vibrant, we cannot allow distance from our nautical heritage to grow. Mailboats are more than a lively topic of historical interest – every few hours they sally forth with the government’s steadying hand, to connect the people and islands of the Bahamas not just with each other, but the world economy.