Jumentos, Bahamas. May-June, 1999
Jumentos: Long Island, 23.34, -75.123 to Duncan Town on Ragged Island, 22.198, -75.727 about 95 nautical miles.
May 18, 1999
On board the Bahamas mail boat: the “Sherice M” bound from Nassau to Long Island. Joining me was my old paddling buddy, Willi. He and I have made several journeys together up the mid-coast of B.C. Our plan was to paddle from Long Island over to the Jumento Cays and follow them south to Duncan Town on Ragged Island.
On this trip we found a fair abundance of small fish milling about amongst the coral. We carried spears which enabled us to supplement our meagre food supplies with fresh fish. As we neared our destination, we did encounter increasing amounts of plastic, mainly bags floating in the water. Seven years later we paddled out of the same location and then toured northward along the Exumas. In just those seven years life had diminished in an astonishing way. Most of the coral was dead and there were so few fish we thought that it would have been criminal to catch any of them. Many of the beaches were soiled with plastic. It was hard to believe that conditions could have deteriorated so quickly.
The Jumentos are a chain of small dry cays that stretch about 90 nautical miles from the south end of the Exumas to within about 40 miles of Cuba. Most of the islands are uninhabited, fairly pristine, and not more than 15 nautical miles apart. Ideal, it seemed to me, for kayaking. If you are going, don’t depend on finding water at “Water Cay”. You will be disappointed. We took along a hand operated water desalinator for making fresh water.
Willi Turner, west coast of B.C.
Willi, especially, had to drink a lot of water to maintain hydration in the high humid, 35 C. days. He’s stocky, blond hair, blond beard, looks like a Viking. Doesn’t like the heat. Born and raised poor in Georgia, U.S. Was studying art, but the Vietnam War put an end to that, and he exited rather hurriedly to Canada. He “paints” mostly with just coloured pencil crayons, in such complex detail that it’s hard to decipher how he does it. Like moss.
He never sells his work. I traded the kayak that he is in for one of his works and I think that we are both happy with the deal. It’s an amazing work on quite a large canvas. There is an old, bearded man with scruffy hair. He has a wild look about him. Above and about his head hover small children’s drawings of goofy animals and dreamy images, as if emanating from his fertile, though possibly deranged, brain. Willi is not that man, but I think that those thoughts are his own.
When Willi is up, he is really up and the whole world seems to laugh along, and when he is down, look out. These mood swings have got him into some bother in the past. Moody man. He’s a great one for stringing long lines of puns together and it’s terrible when he does that. He is also passionate about plants. During our trips along the BC coast, he would often dig up some obscure bog plants and carry them home in his kayak. His garden, on public land, is special.
I’m including comments from some of the cays we visited.
“Journeying about 10 knots. The Sherice is loaded. There is a sailing regatta this weekend somewhere. On board is a sailboat that will be in the race and the skipper and a few of his crew (of the “Barbarian”). Wilfred Bain is who I am talking to. Everybody calls him Uncle Willy. Lives now in Nassau, retired from taxi driving. Owns his boat, pretty contented, I’d say. Does the odd plumbing job on the side.
Just talked to the captain, who also owns this 120-foot boat. Apparently, his contract to carry the mail and stuff is worth $10,000/week. Local call is “Batelco, Ragged Island”, on VHF 16.
Big Lady (really big) is going to run a concession booth at the regatta. Her first time, went to Nassau to get some of the supplies, the rest from Miami. “Booth #1”. She’s proud of this. Cuffs her 3-year-old quite a bit, he seems used to it. Worked for others at booths before. I gave her and the old lady there some graham wafers. She had to see the box, she liked them so much. From Deadman’s Cay.
Stocky guy in coveralls with the salesman’s smile. Works during week as a prison guard. Says after work he does construction jobs. Flies to Cuba on Fridays, buys cigars “out the back door” for $40/box of 20. Sells them in Nassau for $28 each, cheerfully no doubt. In customs in Cuba, puts a $20 bill in his passport. “They don’t bother me”.
We’re nearing the southern, tail end of the Exumas, over shallower water, must be a light sandy bottom because the water is that gorgeous tropical blue. The Exumas are low, as we knew, and not treed much, mostly bush, as we suspected. Yes, I can see blurred details of the bottom. Houses dotted here and there.
The old lady in the galley hasn’t moved since yesterday. Lives in Freeport with family in Long Island. No supplies, I gave her water and a little food. There’s a big button with a photo of her granddaughter on her chest.
“Letter Fox” has a gruff voice for a woman. Talks with everyone. Lives on “Halfmoon Island” which is owned by Holland Cruise Lines. Used to be called “Little San Salvador Island” but the cruise line changed that. The ships left, last cruise late April, and are now operating out of Vancouver on the Alaska cruises. 10 people live there in the off season. She says it is boring at times, too quiet.
I believe that we are just off William Town.
May 19, 1999
Last night it got a little ugly. Some of the crew clearly doesn’t like Willi or me. Because we are the only white men on board? Or just foreigners? Willi was stopped from sitting in a couple of places and he’s fuming. I was prohibited from even standing in front of one guy’s view of the skiff that he said he was looking at. Lots of booze and tension, nowhere for us to stand or sit. Finally found refuge with a couple of women and a boy in a sort of open area beside the galley. Later the captain indicated that there were bunks for us. Problem solved.
We are going to Salt Pond, not Clarence Town. We might just launch from there. (Did land at Salt Pond, 23.351, -75.1274).
May 21, 1999, Grape Tree Cay, 23.1855, -75.29
This place: It’s gorgeous. Take away the no-see-ums and the truly high-intensity, fly-squishing thunderstorms and this could be your tropical paradise.
Birds: on the other side of the island are two oystercatchers, very beautiful with their long orange beaks, white underbellies, and black tops. The white comes up around the front of their wings. Not like in B.C. Inquisitive, followed me around this morning. There is a bird, shaped like a plover, a little bigger. Brown and black with white chevron on the tail feathers. Normally makes a loud click click, click sound. But when they dive they sound like a jet engine-whoosh. Willi thought at the first campsite that it was a donkey braying. Today one started dive bombing me, I was near its nest? Just at the bottom of its dive it curves its wings down, whoosh. There is a pigeon that sounds like an owl. Bonaparte’s gulls, a pair. One screams the usual gull fare, always first. The other squawks as if adding an exclamation. Some pretty, light tan on underbelly, darker on top robin style birds, not shy. Another bird, similar, but with a white strip on the tail. Two herons, a little smaller than our great blues. One grey, the other white. Who are these strangers? Should have brought a bird book.
Willi and Brown Noddies
Yesterday, a hot heat hummer. We finally arrived here, boats on the beach. I looked out to sea and saw it coming towards us. A twister. We scampered away from the boats. It swept up the beach about 10 meters from us, went straight on, about 20 kn travelling speed and hammered the bushes beyond. Branches flying everywhere. About 6 meters in diameter, pulled up debris from the beach. Would have laid waste to our tent flies if they had been up. The day before, at Salt Pond, we saw a large water spout away a bit. Lasted maybe 20 minutes. Dangerous.
May 23, 1999
Last night at Pear Cay. A true seabird rookery. Bonaparte’s gulls, one tern, one Fulmar?” (Note: on one of the early cays, I think this one, there was no beach. We had to lay down our storage bags over the coral and haul our loaded kayaks up over overhanging ledges, on the bags. Seas were calm. This would have been extremely difficult in rough weather.)
May 25, 1999
Interrupted my journal on the 23rd by the arrival on our beach of Christopher, Blue and his four other buddies from Spanish Wells. We first saw them out on the water: two in a skiff diving with a compressor and line. They came up to us: “Hey man, do you burn?” Of course Willi does, so everything was cool.
They were interested in our boats. Thought it was the neatest thing, all that camping stuff in there, and just taking off. These guys like their freedom. They’re here now because red snappers are supposed to be here in big numbers by full moon. They work from the small skiffs. Throw down a net, then go down with their compressed air lines and loop the net around the fish (It’s all shallow here) and the boat person hauls up.
Blue has Paul Newman brilliant blue eyes. Blond hair. No doubt the ladies love this guy. He described about 8 ways of cooking conch, how to spear grouper, eat whelks, eat eggs from the bird colonies on the coral cays. Although he has two kids, he is out chasing fish and shellfish most of the time, by the season.
They had been spear fishing that day- a grouper, triggerfish, parrot fish and two large crayfish, which they gave us. Men as hunters. The women, no doubt, are back at Spanish Wells holding everything together. Blue said that they are all white on Spanish Wells. It’s on an island just off Eleuthera. The people on Eleuthera are mostly black, he said. Sort of enclaves, it seems. Seems to be some money in all this, the skiffs are modern speed boats with big outboards. Blue showed me his fancy onboard GPS with electronic map. They don’t own the boats, though. At least not the mother ship, about 60 feet, wood. The guys go ashore to smoke weed. Can’t do it onboard.
May 27, 1999, Second day at Flamingo Cay
Beautiful beach facing to windward (to S.E.) Good diving (though not as good as Pear Island). Should catch a Grouper today. We burned the backs of our legs swimming yesterday, will have to wear long pants. Unfortunately, too much plastic in the water. Often bags just floating by. It’s blazing hot today, just a small breeze. Speared a parrot fish today and yesterday, off the small island near the point here. Yesterday I saw a huge manta ray. Very beautiful in action, flapping gracefully. The skinks in camp here are very bold. They will even sit on our feet. Looking for snacks.
Water: I pumped 10 litres both today and yesterday with the desalinator. About 2 hours per bag if you include setup. K-1 cockpit is the perfect size. I drop a big rock in the water, out from the beach, tie the kayak to it and hop in. One shock cord up front of the cockpit to hold the intake. Another to hold the water bag. Two shock cords on the same side at rear of cockpit to hold the water maker. With this setup you can pump with one or two hands. And time goes by. Willi drinks a tremendous amount. I’ll be pumping more today. Eating refried beans with triscuit crumbs. There are barracuda in our bay here; we can see them from camp. In the water they look fearsome.
Anchoring kayak to begin pumping water.
May 28, 1999, Jamaica Cay, 22.719, -75.9068.
We need protein. Hence the fishing. I was just off, on the windward side of the north point here. The fish are small and skittish. I was underwater with my spear, trying to sight a fish. I couldn’t, and looked behind me. A shark, about 6–7 feet long had snuck up behind me. Who was the hunter? I wheeled around with my spear and the shark took off. No way was I going to spear a fish with that around. It was within 10 feet. Let’s have some pasta.
This isn’t like Kerama. Lots of brown and white coral, not much colour. Not so many fish.
We were met here by Percy Wilson’s son, Ramon, and his younger brother, who basically ignored us. Ramon was friendly, thoughtful. 26 years. Talked about following a dream, which is Jamaica Cay, which he has been associated with for 8 years. They want to build a whole bunch of single and double cottages. They have cleared a little land, landscaped it. Built a few rudimentary buildings. Two huge tanker trailers are near the beach. One never got driven up to high ground and is rusting from the sea. They don’t have any more money to proceed. Looks like a bottomless pit. Who would come? What about the hurricanes? The situation reminds me of the book, Mosquito Coast. Strong intelligence. Great mechanical aptitude. Wrong dream. Anyway, Ramon is smart, says he’s just learning. Wants to fly planes. Dreams a lot, has confidence.
May 31, 1999, E. Side of Nurse Island
Yesterday we did our final crossing over open sea. About 20 knots on the beam. Breakers too. Not dangerous, though. I liked those cays.
When we finally got to this beach, surfing, unfortunately, onto coral, I felt a sense of let-down. The open passages are over and now — garbage. So much of it on the beach. Innocence passes.
When we left Jamaica Cay Ramon handed us 4 mangoes and wished us well. Wow are they ever good. Way better than in Vancouver. They reminded me of my travels in Latin America.
Its still morning. My morning shower is rapidly approaching. It’s been quite a few days since it rained. So, we will be glad to wash. I will step out naked into the downpour and wash!
The aftermath: just enough rain came to put the soap on, but not enough to get it off. Still sticky.
Since then I’ve read my book in a sea cave, out of the sun for quite a while. Finally went out and caught two fish for dinner. Not a great dive. A depressing amount of garbage is in the water and I’m swimming in it. Mostly plastic bags. Also, it’s blowing, surf’s up, so the visibility is poor. We got a decent dinner. But the sea — how can we as humans survive if the ocean dies? Perhaps the plastic isn’t so bad, just unsightly. But a reminder.
June 3, 1999 Hotel Perseus Maycock, Duncan Town, Ragged Island
Old Perseus, downstairs, who owns this joint, must be pretty deaf. Latin music is throbbing, incredibly loud. At first unfriendly, he’s eased up a bit. We helped him fix his window, but what really made a difference — we offered to put on the sheets. He has nobody to help him, and I think that old Cepheus regards bed-making as woman’s work.
This little town is full of cute black kids and trash. Emphasis on the trash. People around here complain about the noise, but he doesn’t listen. So says Sheila, who made us dinner last night and breakfast this morning. You find her at home or by a neighbour and arrange to meet her at the empty restaurant at a specified time. The system works. Sheila is 57, short and stocky. Her dead husband used to captain the mail boat, but Cepheus was the head honcho (councilman, or something) and he got it for his sons. She has the restaurant, and her sister is starting to let an in-home suite. Hates Perseus.
I’m upstairs, facing east, under a balcony. A breeze is blowing, it’s not too hot. I see that the elderly (57?) drive everywhere on golf carts. The music is blaring.
Across the lot with the run-down shack, still suffering from the most recent hurricane, and past the rubble of concrete, is a tree, a “sea grape”. All the kids stop and eat some grapes before going on. The adults don’t. A little sour, but tangy. The music is blaring still. The mail boat, which is supposed to come today, isn’t in sight, can’t be seen down the long channel between mangroves. According to local information it is supposed to leave at 5 pm, but it’s always late.
Salt Ponds, Duncan Town
June 4, 1999, Aboard Etienne & Cepheus’s 85' mail boat to Nassau. The milk run, maybe 28 hours.
A different and much better experience than the trip to Long Island. These guys, including crew, are fine. Generally, a little older. Such an accent these guys have, a lot of the time it’s a foreign language to me. These guys are, in sentiment, time honoured, freedom-loving sailors. On the boat they feel free, though I guess they don’t count the hierarchy of the boat itself.
The big, tall guy beside me with the full bushy black beard told me this, as did the cook, he of the deep gruff voice but with a twinkle in his eye. Mr. Tall just left his old girlfriend because she wanted him to stay home while she worked. His new one is cool to his work, he says. The cook is married, sees the family every weekend and obviously relishes it. He seems to be the most grounded of the bunch. Told Mr. Tall to not worry about what a certain guy thinks of him. He’s a philosopher of the down-to-earth.
The cook’s brother is a friend of the captain. While we were waiting for the tide at Ragged Island (the tide determines when and where you move — it’s barely deep enough in some of our ports of call, as we scraped bottom every once in a while), the Captain and the big bro. went off in a skiff, all the way to our last campsite on Racoon Cay, and shot a couple of wild sheep. Then, while we set off, he skinned and butchered them where we sat, stern cockpit. That was last night.
Tonight we just dined on, of course, fresh mutton. We are more accepted on this boat. These guys know we paddled from Long Island. They think we’re crazy, but not in a bad way. For dessert tonight: soursop. A fruit, good cooled, thick, white, fresh, lots of pits. Lunch: conch, steamed, and rice, of course, the staple. Not seen pasta.
I just finished my “Murther” book by Robertson Davies. His characters are often so literate; they quote favourite classical authors, even in their own thoughts. This can give your own thought processes a bit of a dressing down. Should I have aspired for more sophistication, more learning? I’m certainly proud of my accomplishments at Feathercraft and of my family. But has my focus been too narrow? Is it?
I often feel intensely spiritual during kayak trips, including this one. A cleansing of the soul. The land and seas wash into me. But should I aspire for more? More literacy? Let’s face it. My most intense moment, and the one that I relish, was when I had to face off that large shark. Also, when I was spearing fish, I was totally alert, conscious, cunning. A hunter. Is this a spiritual action, killing fish? I’m rambling here. But I wonder if I’m yet “grown up” and even what that means. “Get serious, man, and hey man, do you burn?” Should I be able to plumb some obscure line from Shakespeare to express this sentiment? Or Browning? A journey into literature and reflection. I’d have to learn to read in bed without falling asleep.
June 6, 1999, Towne Hotel, Nassau
Louie was on the mail boat from Ragged Island. I had noticed him before, as his appearance was different from the rest. A Cuban. His father, a train conductor, owns a small “farm” with some cows and pigs. You are not allowed to kill a cow there; they are just for milk. Louie’s family was hungry, so he killed and slaughtered a cow. A neighbour squealed. Louie got 17 years in the slammer for this.
After about six months he was allowed to go visit his dad for the weekend, with a guard. They got the guard drunk and Louie jumped in a small rowboat and made it to Ragged Island. He was thrown in Bahamian jail for eight months, but finally released, to be sent back to Cuba. But he immediately married a Bahamian girl, so he got to stay. A pact with the devil.
She is short, obese, and apparently totally devoid of humour. She never set foot out of her room except to go to the head, scowl, and bark orders at Louie. It was hard to hear.. They have a cute baby girl whom he adores. He is exactly her opposite. Strong, extremely fit looking, gregarious, a free spirit who couldn’t be bottled up. Like Papillon. Charming too. In the course of five years, he has managed to buy two boats, fishes with locals, and makes a good living at it, he says.
I’m sitting in a courtyard at the hotel across from two parrots who say “Hello, hello, hello” from time to time. They wake up Willi in the early morning and he curses them.
One floor above, the old workman is washing the floors on the verandas in front of the rooms. The water pours down onto the umbrellas that poke up from the round picnic tables. And that is why the umbrellas are so filthy. I had wondered why.
 When I re-read this I wonder if I was being too harsh. Maybe she has a fear of boats or was seasick.