Benedict Thielen "The Bahamas-Golden Archipelago"

Holiday December 1964, pp. 62- 73, 135-140

In contrast to Nassau, which is mercantile, sophisticated and closely tied to the United States, it was all very Bahamian and colonial. Underlining this impression was the presence, here and there among the crowd, of a troubled or weakly amiable face that bore the unmistakable stamp of the remittance man. When the fair was over and the people who had come in from the outlying settlements had gone home, the feeling of being in a tight little outpost of Empire persisted in Governour's Harbour.

Unidentified figures move in and out of the local scene. There are sudden silences, followed by a murmur of explanatory gossip: of a divorce. a remarriage, a small drinking problem, a sexual peculiarity, a reason why someone has left England or why someone cannot return to the States.Of those people who lead ordered and conventional lives there is, as in all colonies, always one of each kind. You meet the doctor, the lawyer, the bank manager or airlines agent.

When I drove away from Governour's Harbour at night, to the house where I was staying, the feeling of remoteness grew with each mile of dark, deserted bush, with each land crab that scuttled across the road. In the morning the silver thatch palms glittered in the sun and the pale pink beach had been swept clean by the tide. But as I looked out at the sea breaking on the barrier reef I felt a little like Heyst in Conrad's Victory looking out to the waters of Samburan. I would not have been too surprised if a boat containing the sinister figures of Ricardo, Pedro and Plain Mr. Jones had suddenly appeared from around the nearest headland.

Such uneasy thoughts, I am sure, never trouble the people who come for a winter vacation at French Leave or the Potlatch Club or any of the other elegant resorts of the Out Islands. They face a magnificent beach, they are self-contained and their guests seldom venture beyond their spacious grounds. The buildings are done in a studiedly rustic good taste and any shocks received from nature-in-the-raw must be as nicely cushioned as they were for Marie Antoinette and her ladies-in-waiting when they played at being milkmaids in the little barn at Versailles.

Few pictures of Bahamian beaches—whether issued by the Ministry for Tourism or by a real-estate developer developer—fail to show them other than lined by bending cocoanut palms. The palms exist, but I am obliged to say that they are few and far between. In fact, the landscape of the Bahamas is, on the whole, dull. Except where the causarinas form a hazy green background or the century plants thrust up their tall columns capped with golden blossoms, the growth is scrubby and if a uniform uninteresting green. But it doesn't matter. It is the sweeping sands nd the waters beyond them that matter.

As you fly above them your sight is sucked down, dizzied and drowned in shifting patterns of indigo and bottle-green, violet, turquoise-matrix and jade. Where the corals rise close to the surface, their branches spread out in tangled forests of gold. In shallow waters, the sand-bores swirl like a finger painting made by the strokes of a cosmic thumb. They are rhythmic as music, high-keyed, pale tan, pearl-gray, milky blue. With the approach of a squall the water darkens to the angry black-purple of the ink jet shot out by a / squid. When the sun returns, the colors spring up from the depths like a flooding of light through cathedral windows.

It is good to fly above such splendor but the time comes when distant views are not enough. these waters are meant to be sailed on and swum in. At Governour's Harbour I sat by the old Pineapple Steps, where then sailing ships used to take on their loads of fruit, and waited for the schooner Caribe to take me away from the land. Friends of mine from Key West sail the Caribe on charter, and as I waited for them I remembered the quotation from Swinnburne's Swimmer's Dream which appears on their advertising brochure: "A purer passion, a lordlier leisure, a peace more happy than lives on land..."

I was trying to remember the rest of it when an old Negro carrying a string of fish stopped and asked me if I was waiting for a boat, and where I was going. When I told him, he looked up at the the sky and with the soft-spoken precision of the black Bahamian said, "You will have a fair wind to the Exumas." It seemed as good a line as any unremembered Swinburne.

Beginning thirty-odd miles southeast of Nassau, the Exuma Cays stretch southeasterly in an almost straight chain for more little and hundred miles to Great and Little Exuma, where we were bound. According the Yachtsman's Guide to the Bahamas, "They form what is probably the most exquisite cruising ground to be found in the northern hemisphere." It is a statement which, for once, it would be hard to take exception to.

Exuma, the deep water we sailed across from Eleuthera to the top of the Exumas, was dark blue, alive with wind and the flight of flying fish. After it was the stillness of the anchorage of Highborne Cay. In such a shelter the boat is held in a sheet of glass. The shells on the sea bottom that look as though I could reach over and pick them up are lying three fathoms down. The water has the clarity of gin and its effect, whether you are looking at it or immersed in it, is much the same.

There are few aids to navigation in the Bahamas, and the Exuma Cays are no exception. Of those that exist, many are unreliable or of use only to someone who is familiar with them. A kerosene lantern hung from a post may be all that marks the passage through a dangerous reef. On a stormy night when no one should be foolish enough to be out on the water, the people on shore may not even bother to light the lantern. Native sloop men, sailing by instinct and experience, using a few stars such as the North Star and Big Dipper—which they call Big Shiny and Conch Tail—can travel at night. No one else does.

Daytime pilotage is done almost entirely by eye, with the color of the water telling its depth. The colors range from the almost purple-blue of the deep sea through half a dozen shadings of blue and green to the "white water" of less than a fathom. Grass and rocks, sand and marl and the coral heads that can rip out a ship's bottom all have their distinctive hues and these can be deceptively altered by cloud shadows and changes of light. It is no place for the weekend sailor or the carefree amateur.

Because sailing into the low sun of early morning or late afternoon makes it impossible to judge the water's true color you usually have no choice except to make a late start and an early anchorage for the night. In time a routine of this sort brings on a state of happily bemused torpor. The sun is hot. The shade is cool. The next anchorage, if it is really necessary to move on from this one, is only a few miles distant, and you can always come to by crawling across the deck and falling over the side. You are released from /

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