Chak Matay arrived in Bimini 16 hours after departing from No-Name Harbor. The night before departure was a still one, water flat as a mirror and the kind of sunset that inspires poetry. No-Name is an anchorage on the brink, this would be the last chance for sleep before waking up to finally jump across the mighty Gulf Stream. We stole away under cover of darkness, moments before midnight, never hesitating long enough to even wave goodbye to the homeland.
I’ve heard since that some boats do it in less than half the time, rushing to the destination at paces much faster than our steady little 4 knot clip. Shocking really. To think that they would skip the mental test we endured just to save a little time. I’m learning to appreciate how slow travel forces you to engage fully with the process of getting somewhere in a way that is both humbling and beautiful. Counter intuitive though it may seem, much more work is required to take your time and travel slow than is required to go fast. Waking up before midnight to sail through the early hours of the morning, watching as the sun finally rose over the deep Gulf Stream waters, and all through the day of February 8th. We dropped anchor again at 4:30pm and breathed a sigh of relief.
We had really done it!
The trip itself wasn’t too bad, the long hours took their toll but the getting of one place to another had been relatively smooth. There was just one hiccup towards the very end, it seems no trip is complete without one. The bad fuel blues bit us in the butt yet again, Volvo Penta sputtered out just before we were preparing to enter the dodgy, narrow channel that leads to Alice Town. Luckily, having faced this problem many times now, we knew what to do and eventually made it in.
Just in the nick of time. Sterling had made it ahead of us and came over right away to say that the customs office was closing at 6pm, so get a move on! He took Joel ashore with all the boat documents and passports, just minutes after the anchor found a hold. I stayed behind with Chak, happy to rest a bit and resist the exhaustion that told me it was time to pass out.
Fifteen minutes later Sterling returned, but he was alone.
“Hey.. what’s up?”
He shook his head, tragically. “He’s been picked up. Girl, you’re gonna have to sail this boat back to Miami all by yourself.”
“You’re joking.” I was awake now.
“Do you see him come back with me?! Do I look like I’m joking? They ran his name, he’s a felon, got a warrant out for his arrest in the States!”
Sterling’s blue eyes were wide and wild, made even more distinct by his leathered complexion, resulting from a lifetime of sun exposure and salt spray.
Joel, a wanted criminal? It didn’t seem possible. But then again, how well can you really know someone. I didn’t know what to say. Shocked and in disbelief, I pictured Joel spending the night in a Bahamian jail, doubting I would have enough money to bail him out and having not a clue what the options would be. I wasn’t so scared for myself, I knew enough about sailing to get by, it wouldn’t be easy but I could do it. Back to the states was the easy route with the winds helping rather than hurting. But leave Joel here, in jail, in a foreign country? My eyes must’ve been wide enough by now to match Sterling’s crazed expression and my heart was racing, it seemed determined to leap out of my chest. This couldn’t be happening. Yet here Sterling was, with Joel nowhere in sight. I sputtered a few more words of disbelief and panic.
“Got you pretty good, didn’t I.” Sterling’s expression had changed, now his face was positively jubilant.
“Sterling! You can’t do that to me!” I faked a bit of angry outrage and, unable to hide my relief, put my hand on my chest as if to still the racing heart that wanted escape.
He laughed, and laughed. “You are gullible girl!”
“Oh, sure, what was I supposed to think! You get the crazy eyes going and sure enough, come back here without Joel…” I was shaking my head but couldn’t help laughing along with him.
“Come on come on, we’re gonna go get a beer. He’s back on shore, I just came to pick you up.”
And so began night number one in the Bahamas.
The next day found the three of us on a quest to repair Chak’s alternator. The one she came with had been outfitted with a funky, after market set up by the previous owner. Copper coils looped around the outside and connected to two hoses at either end, an intake that came in from the prop shaft and an outtake that combines with the cooling system for the entire engine. It was a makeshift, saltwater cooling system which we eventually came to believe was a contributing factor in the geyser that kept erupting from the overflow tank any time the engine ran higher RPMs. It was a vicious cycle, that geyser flooded saltwater all over the alternator itself which caused it to fault and stop charging the batteries properly, or at all.
Sterling, our veteran guide and travel mentor, engaged the first Bahamian we encountered. There was not auto repair or parts shop on the island, but we were told Tristan was the guy we needed to find, go to the white house on top of the hill overlooking the beach. It took us a while, but we eventually found the right house, and on the way received confirmation from a few other locals that Tristan was in fact the man.
We knocked on his door but it wasn’t Tristan who answered, it was his cousin. Tristan was out fishing, we were told, he would be back that evening. With nothing else to do for the day but wait for Tristan to return, we explored the remaining streets of Alice Town – the few that remained. We walked the beach and took in the beautiful water. The beach was deserted. Possibly the best beach I have ever seen, and not a soul was there to enjoy the crystalline waters, colorful tide pools and soft sandy outskirts. So many shades of blue, all I had been told to expect of Bahama waters did nothing to diminish the reality. Indigo on the horizon of the deep gave way to sparkling emeralds, dark teal became aquamarine where the shallows began, aquamarine interchanged with turquoise as it washed over corral rocks and tide pools, finally giving way to a perfect clear where the waves reached up to kiss the sandy, shell-covered shore.
Twice more we returned to the white house on top of the hill to ask for Tristan, and twice more we were told to come back later. It wasn’t until darkness was beginning to settle over the island that Tristan actually found us. Sterling had returned to his boat, while Joel and I had resolved to wait just one more hour before giving up for the night. We were walking the ocean side road along the top of the hill that overlooked the beach, the same street where Tristan lived. The sun was long set and some of the street lights were flickering on and off.
Out of the darkness a golf cart zoomed up behind us and someone shouted, “Hey! I hear you’ve been looking for me.” A tall figure jumped off of the cart and it took off again. “I am Tristan.” His accent wasn’t so thick as many of the other islanders, and he was young with a friendly looking face.
“Oh, hey! Yeah, we need to get our alternator fixed. Everybody says you’re the guy to talk to.”
“Ahh, no problem no problem.” He nodded. “I don’t fix it myself, but what I can do is get it sent to Freeport where the shop is. I used to work there. My brother, he still lives there. He will take it to the shop, they will fix it and he will send it back.”
“Great, man. I think it’s just the brushes that need replacing.” Joel took off his waterproof backpack, preparing to hand over the alternator.
“Yeah, okay, so you give it to me now and I can get it on the first plane out in the morning. You can get it back by tomorrow afternoon.”
“Wow, that soon? Sounds great.
“Yeah, yeah, as long as they can get it repaired in a day, should be no problem.” Tristan started adding in his head, “So, that’s 25 each way for the shipping, and repair should be 120.. Well, between 90 and 150. You give me 200 and it’s good.”
“200?” Joel repeated, the alternator changed hands and he started for his wallet.
“My name is Michal, by the way, and this is Joel.” Seeing we were about to make a serious transaction without having introduced ourselves, I stuck my hand out.
Tristan smiled, “Michal, huh? That’s my middle name.”
Joel laughed, “Yeah, mine too.”
Money changed hands and we planned to get in touch the very next afternoon. Tristan gave us his WhatsApp contact, but said we could also just ask for him at the front counter of the Big Game Club and they would call.
We parted ways, having handed over the alternator, $200 cash, and a lot of blind trust to a complete stranger. We affirmed each other that Tristan seemed like a genuine guy and we felt good about what we had to do. What else could we say though? It was totally out of our hands. At worst we could have Sterling give us a tow and sail the rest of the way out of Bimini if we needed to. But without that alternator we were stranded in a dicey anchorage with the engine partially disassembled and shallows all around.
The next day was bad news. The shop had closed early. Tristan’s brother was able to drop off our alternator that morning, but the shop had closed before he came back to get it. They wouldn’t open again until Monday, two more days. But it was the weekend, we reasoned, understanable.
We were stranded in paradise, so we went to the beach to play in the water and pass the time. The next few days however, were increasingly anxious. The island was small enough that we had seen nearly all of Alice Town in our first day of exploration. After some work had been done on the boats, the mountain of laundry had been attended to, and the latest episode had been uploaded, there was little else to do but wait patiently. Sterling especially does not do well with idle time, but all of us I think felt the pull to move on. Only, we weren’t going anywhere with out that alternator.
We got in touch with Tristan again on Monday.
Good news and bad news this time. The bad, they couldn’t fix the alternator. The good, they ordered a new one with the money we gave and it would be in by tomorrow. Disappointed yet again, but still not without hope, we set our sights on Tuesday.
To pass the time Tuesday morning, Joel and I walked to Bailey Town. Just a bit North of Alice Town on the Kings Road, it was something new to see and do, somewhere to go without really going anywhere. In Bailey Town we found some awesome local, Jamaican style cuisine. I think Tropics is the name of the stand. A colorful wooden hut on the west side of the street, it really didn’t look like much, but the people standing around outside seemed promising.
Stew Beef was at the top of the menu and that’s what we ordered. It was totally amazing, flavor so spicy and sweet, and beef that was melt-in-your-mouth tender. Served with red beans and rice and coconut dressed coleslaw. It was the only meal we had yet permitted ourselves to purchase, and it was a good call. Joel’s call really, though I had been voting for a conch salad as conch seemed to be the abundant local protein of choice, I was happy to have given in.
By the time we wandered back into Alice Town and picked up wifi from Big Game, we had received a message from Tristan! Our alternator was on the ferry, the captain had instructions to give it to Tristan but would also hand it over to Joel if we didn’t feel like waiting for him to get back from fishing. Nothing else going on and having waited long enough, we walked to the opposite end of town to track down this ferry captain. All the while hoping against hope to soon have a working alternator in our possession.
True to his word, Tristan had secured for us a brand new, shiny Delco alternator. We celebrated briefly, knowing that while we could see the light, we were not out of the woods yet.
I’ll spare the details of frustration that ensued while trying to fit a different alternator into the place where our old one had fit so comfortably. Know only that great creativity was required, and finally, at long last the Volvo Penta was up and running once again!
Less than 24 hours after having secured the new alternator from the ferry captain, we were leaving Bimini behind. Next stop, Honeymoon Key. It was time for a coconut haul.
Ever since I first met Sterling in Marathon, he spoke incessantly of Honeymoon Island. Where he always stops to find coconuts, loading them into his boat by the dozens. Having just tasted fresh coconut for the very first time in my life while in Bimini, I was now addicted and would have gone anywhere so long as coconuts were part of the deal. This stop was all part of the trek. We were along for the ride, following Sterling’s route through the Bahamas and eventually to the Dominican Republic. Most of the time we are good students, happy to learn and eager to follow, but Sterling also likes to push us. Joel says it feels like getting a taste of his own medicine, being an older brother himself and often having pushed Tony well past the limits of his comfort zone. Sterling, being quite familiar and comfortable in these places he has been to many times, and with a boat he knows like the back of his hand, gets the jump on us more often than not. Sometimes it feels like a test, other times like a practical joke at our expense.
Such was the case leaving Miami, and so too with taking off from Bimini.
No sooner had our alternator finally found its place, with all of the connections having been done and redone multiple times, and Sterling was on the move. By chance I stuck my head up out of the cabin and happened to catch him, anchor up and pulling out.
“I’ll wait for you outside the channel!” He called to me. That was it. No warning, no notice, just boom, done. Gone.
“Okay…” I called back. Had this been part of the plan? I could remember no prior discussion but obviously right now was the time to go. “Sterling, we’re at least an hour behind you! We still need to get a few gallons of diesel and water.” And clean up our boat, she was a mess, in no state to travel.
He gaped at me, incredulous, and waved a hand as if to say: Do what you gotta do, but people, hurry the hell up!
To be fair we had told him that the alternator was in and working, and had neglected to mention beyond that we weren’t quite ready to travel.
As if there was such a thing! At no point in this whole journey have we ever been “ready.”
We hustled, got the fuel and the water, and packed up the boat. A bit frazzled but no worse off, we soon met Sterling outside of the channel. Where once again he took off without warning. We still had no idea of where we were attempting to make our next anchorage, only the name Honeymoon Key, but no clear plan of how to get there.
At times before, Joel and I had acknowledged the importance of self-reliance. Noting that Sterling was an invaluable resource and we were far better off for his guidance, but we were still on our own and would have to take responsibility for whatever happened. So we looked at the charts and made a plan. There were two possible routes, on the inside – the eastern side of the islands – or the outside bordering the Gulf Stream. At some point we would have to cross over to enter Honeymoon Harbor from the east, but having a healthy respect for shallow waters we opted to take the outside passage for most of the 5 mile jaunt. Sterling, with his tiny draft would take the inside. He radioed over the VHF for us to follow him, as he crossed to the inside less than a mile in to the move. When Joel radioed back that we planned to stay on the outside, this did not go over well.
I felt strongly that we should stick to the plan we had made together, Joel felt it best to give Sterling the benefit of doubt and follow his lead. Whatever the call, it had to be made immediately. We were on the move with no time to deliberate. Tension ran a bit high as we disagreed and things became heated. Ultimately though it was Joel’s call, and I let him make it – all the while making sure my resistance was felt.
This became a huge learning experience for me.
After the moment had passed, I continued to reflect on what made me so stubbornly attached to the plan we had made. I realized eventually that I resented having no choice but to trust the ultimate judgements of Joel and Sterling. The cooperative plan Joel and I decided gave me some say in how we were to get there, although Sterling surely knew best, I wasn’t part of that call. For better or worse, I am fiercely independent and have always known a certain degree of control in my own destiny. Now, I was totally subject to the decisions of others, no longer captain of my own ship. Reason tells me I am totally inferior to the experience of 67 year old Sterling, who has traveled these islands many times over, and though Joel may yet be a novice captain, his expertise far exceeds mine. But reason doesn’t quite silence the petty voice in my head that hates being anything but self-reliant.
I knew that this whole experience would challenge me in unique ways and provide priceless opportunities to learn about myself, to see my weaknesses and to confront them. Self discovery is surely a double edged sword. Useful though it may be, often what one finds are parts of themselves that they don’t particularly like.
I came to see clearly one of my greatest weaknesses is an unjustified hubris, excessive pride in my own intellect and abilities. That trust is a phenomenon I have never before needed to exercise, and therefore am barely equipped to do so.
We made it to anchorage at Honeymoon Key with no problems whatsoever navigating the shallow waters and reefs. Sterling was right, and for the record has yet to lead us astray. The opposite really – we would be far worse off without him. I swallowed hard and took my humble pill. Soon though, all tensions were melted away.
Honeymoon was a magical little cove.
We arrived with a few hours left of daylight, time enough to hike the length of the island and hunt down some coconuts. The coconut trees were at the far side of the island from where we anchored. Probably just over a mile away, a lighthouse stood on top of a hill marking the spot. There was no path, so finding our way through the brush and over the sharp volcanic rock that lined the beach wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. It was awesome. So fun for me to hop around on uncertain footing and stretch the leg muscles, I hadn’t realized how much I missed exploring on land.
Eventually, we found the coconuts and went crazy. Sterling has this extendable saw-thing that he can use to reach up into the tall canopy and relieve the trees of their fruit. Totally slick. We loaded up the backpacks quickly and cut open a coconut each to drink some sweet nectar before heading back to the boats.
The next day found us snorkeling with stingrays, and later feeding them by hand on the beach! Don’t worry, Joel caught it all on video.
Sterling found a huge, beautiful conch shell which he later fashioned into a horn for us. Joel picked up a live conch, which we dispatched of and cooked up for dinner. Conch curry with sprouts. Mhmmm.
We only remained at Honeymoon Key for two nights before moving on -across the Great Bahama Bank to Andros Island. Now, we are anchored again at Morgan’s Bluff and have been for the past few days. It looks like we’ll have to stay here in the protected bay and wait while some serious weather blows through. Maybe Monday we’ll be able to make a break for it and head to Nassau.
Already though, Morgan’s Bluff has been its own crazy adventure.
I got sun-poisoning the day we left Honeymoon and was totally useless..
We nearly ran out of fuel just before pulling into Morgan’s Bluff..
The first night at Andros, I was eaten alive by sand flies, then had an allergic reaction to the hundreds of bites..
The second night, Joel ran the pool table establishing his reputation among the locals as a shark..
The third day, we encountered a monster while exploring the secret cave of notorious pirate Henry Morgan, for which the bluff is named..
But that night, new friends David and Martha had us over dinner..
PIZZA… On a boat!! The best I’ve had anywhere. Completely unreal.
Cheers mates, I’ll have to catch ya up later