After covering many miles in the five day push from Morgan’s Bluff, we were so grateful just for the chance to stop and take a breather. We planned to be there just a few days, to buy fuel and provisions, do laundry, explore the town, and socialize with other cruisers.. But then, as soon as the weather was right, we would be on our way.
Little did we know the fates had a more extended stay in mind for us.
What a spot though. Unlike any other place in the Bahamas that we encountered on our brief, sometimes hectic, tour through the islands to reach here. Probably because it really isn’t anything like the rest of the Bahamas.
Georgetown is cruiserville.
Everything about this place caters to the hundreds of cruisers who congregate here, this special breed of transient tourist; they are the lifeblood of the economy. All of the boats anchor on the East side of Elisabeth Harbor across from Great Exuma Island, the far side of the water from Georgetown. Forming their own, anchored community around the shores of Stocking Island, the cruisers come together on Volleyball Beach to interact, share stories, and meet up with old friends not seen since last year. The beach is aptly named. With 3 beach volleyball courts in view of a dozen picnic tables set up under the shade trees. This tight knit community centers around the daily cruisers’ net, similar to Marathon. Every morning at 8am, on channel 72 of the VHF radio, Bill the net controller gets the show rolling. This open communication avenue provides a public marketplace to connect via information shared, goods & services traded, as well as organized Regatta events, and leisurely activities on the beach.
While cruisers come from all walks of life, each with a different story and set of experiences, we all share something in common. Something that make it easy to connect. We all have a little craziness going on; there’s something just a bit off about all of us. It’s a mixture of the desire for solidarity and freedom from cultural confines, combined with the lunacy that needs to look Neptune in the eye and face one’s own mortality. It’s an unspoken understanding.
First we touched down near Elisabeth Island, by the shores of Monument Beach. The highest point of land in the harbor, it has a concrete obelisk to mark the top. We were a long way from the dinghy docks in the center of town, having dropped anchor at the first good spot we found after pulling in past the breaking waves and treacherous maze of reefs. But it was kind of amazing to take a long ride into shore, touring through all the anchorage fields. So many cruising boats. More than I’ve ever seen, all types and classes. Most ports of origin coming from the U.S. and Canada, sometimes Europe. It was awesome for me to see so many different boats at once.
That’s how the first few days went. We explored this new and interesting place, all while buying new charts for further south and checking the weather.
After a few times of making that long crossing to town across the bay, sometimes in fairly big seas, we decided we needed to anchor a bit closer. Sterling picked up anchor the morning after we decided. Joel and I would follow, but first we knew we needed to climb Monument Hill.
What a day it was. Sunny, beautiful clouds, perfect for exploring. Not much of a hike by most hikers standards, just a short walk uphill an elevation gain of a 100ft or so. But it lead through tropical island jungles and felt like walking through a dream, or the setting of a place I’d read about but never been to. Magical palms blocked the glaring midday sun and tiny lizards scampered across the worn sandy path. A few steps of stone staircase had been formed near the top by who-knows-how-many years of hand-grabs and foot-holds. After reaching the top of the stone steps, we walked around one more corner before finding ourselves at the top of the hill, at the foot of the obelisk. And the view… Oh, the view.
If it’s possible, shades of shallow water blues actually improve from a higher vantage point. From here we could see the entirety of Elizabeth Harbor, all of the tiny boats and anchor fields reaching off into the distance of the south end. We could also see the big water on the other side of the island. Huge breaking waves. Out there, to the East, was the deep, raw power of the Atlantic Ocean. The rapid change of depths is lined clearly by changing colors of blue. The Bahamian aquamarine hugs the shoreline, but doesn’t take long before giving away to cobalt blue of the 50-100 ft variety, and then quickly becoming an indigo of unknown depths. Thousands of mysterious fathoms lie below indigo.
We followed another path that lead down to the beach where the waves were crashing with ominous volumes. It was high tide and not much of the beach remained for walking on. As close as these massive rollers were crashing to shore, we were hesitant to even dip a toe in the incoming waves. One misstep could be swept away, leading to a tragically desperate sort of swim.
From the top of Monument Hill we could see the tide pools on the inland side of the beach, where we had parked the dinghy. But what we hadn’t noticed from ground level were all of the rocks that had been arranged to spell out messages – ‘Do Send Nudes,’ names of boats, and pictures – one of an alien head. We too had to leave our mark.
“Bums on a Boat” – what else?
Then, had to run back to the top of the hill to catch on camera the mark we left behind for all to see, hoping it survived the next tide.
Later that afternoon, we picked up anchor to move closer to the action. Volleyball beach was clearly the place to be. And so we were.
The next few days found us consistently grabbing an ice-cold sunset beverage at the Chat ‘n’ Chill. Ice being a luxurious and rare sort of treat we indulged in whenever able to. Most nights they closed by dark, but Wednesday’s are the weekly dance party where the bar stays open and DJs play music late into the night.
Wednesday was also propane delivery day. A truck with a propane tank on the back pulls into town, across the street from Eddie’s Edgewater. We had been to Edgewater on a few occasions, for wifi, Kalik, and food. The food is good and the Internet is fast enought, but if you plan to go, make sure there is absolutely nothing else on your agenda for the day. Luckily this was the case for us. It was the second day after we arrived in Georgetown. We were looking for wifi and a spot of lunch, having heard from some locals about this restaurant where we could pick up free internet, we decided to give it a try.
It was a bit too early when we walked in, 11:30 and lunch wasn’t served until 12:30. No matter, we bought a cold beer a piece and pulled out our devices. It would be easy to pass the time while getting in touch with friends and family.
An hour later, we ordered food. The place had begun to fill up. Tourists and locals alike seemed to favor this place. Good, we thought, ought to be some great food! I did notice that the locals were getting mostly to-go orders. Soon, it became clear that all the tourists who arrived after us were being served plates while we were still waiting, and sucking down beers. One couple arrived much later than we did and then left a good hour before we were out of there.
Sterling was beside himself. Joel and I, the pacifists, were fairly content to sit there, just letting it happen and bemuse the situation.
But Sterling couldn’t take it. “This is ridiculous..” Blue eyes bulged in protest as yet another plate went by and didn’t land in front of him. “I gotta know what we did wrong.”
He was finally able pull aside one of the servers and asked, with a forced calm and excessively polite voice, what had we done wrong? What had we done to deserve this negligent treatment we were receiving? He pointed out that we were the first ones through the door and the last ones still yet to be served!
She smiled at him with an excessively polite voice of her own, “Noo, no sir, you were not the first here.” She motioned to the others enjoying their lunch. “They ordered before you did and came back!”
It was almost 3:00 before we finally dug in, famished by now. I wondered if that was part of the trick. Get them so hungry that no matter what you feed them it’ll taste divine. Because it did taste awesome.
“Worth it?” I grinned at Sterling as he devoured his baked chicken, red beans and rice. He didn’t say anything, but sort of growled at me. He was better having finally been fed, but still not happy. Not happy at all.
Four hours after arriving, we walked out of Edgewater. At least now we knew, you order a day in advance, and swoop in to pick it up around 1:30.
That was Saturday, and Wednesday found us back at Edgewater again. This time we were stuck waiting for propane, and the food came out lightening fast. Go figure.
We kinda started the party a little early that day. I had bought a bottle of gin, tired of paying $9 per mixed drink at the Chat ‘n’ Chill. I picked up this bottle for $10.50 – figuring I could buy a ginger ale with a cup full of sweet, sweet ice for $1.50 and mix in my own gin for a hell of a bargain. Joel was stuck out in the sun waiting for the propane truck, his tank in the line up with all of the other cruisers’ tanks. It was hot, but he was making friends and had ice-cold Kaliks from Eddie’s to stay refreshed. I didn’t feel too bad hanging out inside to finish up the last blog.
About an hour later than promised, the propane truck arrived. Island time, right. No hurries, no worries man. We lugged the tank back to the dinghy and took it back to the boat. A few hours later, we were headed to Volleyball Beach to enjoy the rest of the afternoon playing in the sun. I grabbed a book to read on the beach and Joel grabbed his most prized possession, the slack line.
Around sunset people began to gather on the beach, a huge crowd.
Pirates! Everywhere, swashbucklers and wenches. It was a contest, the best pirate costume and there were some real convincing ones – complete with cutlasses and parrots. The pirate costume contest wrapped up with the sunset and segued into nighttime festivities. Music, drinks, and dancing, on the porch of Chat ‘n’ Chill. The photo to accompany this post is of the view from that porch looking out across the beach and the anchorage.
Aided by the cheap gin drink I made on the boat and brought to the beach, I was flowering into a social butterfly. I met and talked to many cool people. A couple, Drew and Stacy, who were telling us all about their experiences in the Dominican Republic. Renting bikes especially, where Drew, a huge, hairy, blonde gringo evidently provided priceless entertainment for the locals. “Looking like a gorilla on a tricycle!” ..was Stacy’s description.
A trio of travelers, all in their 20’s & 30’s on a small boat like us and traveling the same way – on the cheap. They were heading for Cuba. Laura, like me, was just out of school and looking for adventure. She planned to go back eventually to study environmental law – a thought that has also crossed my mind in the past.
Joel, the life of the party himself, was downing Kalik Gold’s and making sure Drew never went without a cold one in his hand.
It was such a fun night. We danced to the music, our bare feet kicking up sand, and spinning circles around one another. The party kept going late into the night and though many people headed back to the boats, we would stay until the last song.
I danced a few minutes with Joel and the rest of the revelers on the deck, but I could feel it wasn’t right for me to be there. Then, I spotted his good friend Randy at a picnic bench down on the beach. Knowing this was where I should be too, I kept Randy company. He was so tired from traveling all day, having just arrived from Tampa, but was doing his best to hang in there. He was there to meet up with Holly. She had been dancing for hours and showed no signs of stopping. A good friend of Randy’s and Joel’s, Holly is a force of nature. A free-spirit single handing her own Beneteau. Female captains are the rarest of souls, and from what little I have come to understand of this boating world I know I respect her without ever having shared a conversation. Randy would be staying with her while exploring Georgetown for the first time. I immediately could see he would never ask her to stop enjoying the night for his sake, even if he was exhausted.
At this particular moment my feet itched like mad to be dancing with the other merrymakers, but I felt it was better for me to be on the side keeping Randy company. He explained that he wasn’t a very good dancer, and would need to be at least decently intoxicated before stepping out, “Like that..” he gestured to Joel. I laughed.
Joel was spinning in circles, kicking up his heels, and wheeling around wildly.. all mostly in time to the music. He looked like a crazy person. But dancing so freely with such abandon, no one could think that he looked stupid.
I explained to Randy that I’ve felt that way before too, afraid to dance for fear of what anyone else might think. “It’s because he doesn’t care how he looks up there. As soon as you stop worrying about looking stupid and looking like you don’t know how to dance.. You won’t! Hardly anybody *knows* how to dance. You just move..”
He didn’t seem convinced.
Meanwhile, Joel kept shimming over to the rail of the porch to shake his butt in our direction, or to blow me kisses. He was trying to get me to come dance with him. I blew kisses right back and shimmied my shoulders, but stayed where I was. It was Holly’s dance floor. The last thing I wanted was to spoil this moment, there was room for only one pirate gal on this dance floor and I was happy to let her have it. There would be other opportunities to dance.
Randy and I chatted for what must have been an hour. Turns out he’s a pretty awesome guy and we clicked over a shared love of hiking, in addition to being on the water! He also has his own boat up in Tampa and owns a dive company.
The party was going late, perhaps midnight, I never checked. As things were slowing beginning to wind down, drunk-Joel decided to take it to another level.
I was still on the picnic table with Randy, the same one you can see in the photograph, when Joel yelled at me from the railing.
“I love you Michal!”
Laughing, I yelled back over the music, “I love you too, Joel!”
But he had already started to climb. Then he was sitting on the railing, crouched on all fours like a cat.
I stood up on the picnic table. And, with less urgency than the situation called for – given what I assumed he meant to do, I pointed up toward the string of lights 3 ft above his head. “Joel, look! The lights..”
He didn’t acknowledge or respond. Randy stood up too.
“Man, there’s lights right above you, be careful!”
Either he couldn’t hear over the music, or the single minded focus of a drunken idiot had already taken him far away from us. Not a moment later, he leapt. He exploded off the railing and into the darkened sky, throwing his head backward in the graceful arcing motion he has practiced to the point of second nature. Up and backwards, into the air he flew. Like Icarus, he flew too close to the sun, and he got burned, bad.
He only made it halfway around before those lights reached out and grabbed his ankle like a trip-wire. He fell from flight, straight down, onto the waiting, wooden planks. Landing with the sickening sound of two solids colliding with enough force to break the weaker one.
I watched, horror-struck, as he landed squarely on the top of his head with a resounding crack and the rest of his body followed close behind as a lifeless heap. I knew he was dead.
How does anyone survive a blow like that one?!
Surely, his neck was severed.
As one who has never felt any particular antipathy toward death, sadness sometimes, but mostly regarding it factually, as necessity – like breathing – integral to life itself; it is tough to describe my response. Let alone, for me to comprehend my own emotions.
On the one hand, death can’t be such a bad thing. Not if it gives meaning to the life that we have. Further, I believe that only through the certainty of death is one truly aware of being alive. Death could even be considered the ultimate purpose of all living things. To shed the husk of a body and allow the eternal soul to ascend, perhaps becoming one with God, the All, the universe.. sounds beautiful. And while the soul ascends, the body ensures the continuation of all future generations. By decomposing in order to recompose and begin anew the cycle of life! This what I choose to believe and how I view death.
I just watched the person I love and care for most in this world die, right before my eyes. There’s no space for reason. There’s hardly room for any reaction at all. Only shock. I think I must’ve blacked out along with him. I remember seeing him fall out of midair with perfect, HD, slow motion clarity. I remember the sickening feeling in my stomach, the dread of what I would find when I reached him. But I don’t remember actually getting to his side. I don’t remember jumping down from the picnic table, running across the beach and up the steps of the porch.
The next thing I recall, the thing that snapped me back, was a bespectacled dude in an orange shirt announce that he was breathing! Later, I learned this dude was actually a surgical nurse. He held Joel’s wrist with two fingers, feeling for a pulse. I sat by Joel’s head, which we hadn’t moved since the fall, and watched a slow trickle of blood crawling out from the corner of his mouth.
Alive.. a sigh of relief. Alive was great news, better than I dared hope for. But nothing else about this situation seemed good.
Joel must be one of God’s favored. Or disfavored, if only the good die young. Either way I’m quite shocked he’s still alive.
If you know Joel you know he’s damn decent at backflips. Even stupidly drunk, I’m pretty sure he would’ve landed that one if it wasn’t for the string of pesky party lights.
Not that any of it is justified.
A person who cannot live in conformity. Who says he’s out to break stereotypes. Who claims he isn’t afraid to die. Joel has never been one to follow, let alone set any limits for himself. But to not set limits, where does it lead? What does it really mean?
Here, it seems, a close encounter with death and a lumpy head. Since then he’s affirmed that he’s still not afraid to die, but it would be a shame to go out like that. A failed attempt at a backflip while black-out drunk.
I think what “limitless” has meant to Joel is that he doesn’t do things halfway. If he decides to do something, he’s fully committed, he’s all in. If he is going to buy a boat and start an adventure on the water, he will see it through to the very end. If he’s at a party, he will dance until the very last song, and drink beers until ultimately his body has to say no more.
What this mindset allows for is a range of intense experience. It’s like a pendulum that swings forcefully, and sometimes wildly, from one end to another. To provide a contrast, my range of experience is confined by self-imposed limits. It’s more like a metronome that goes tick-tick, tick-tick, back and forth within a smaller range, spending more time in the middle than at the poles. We have found, while observing one another, that there are positives and negatives to both approaches. The beauty of the situation maybe, is that we can learn from one another.
I told Joel a few weeks before that night, after he suggested that I should maybe keep him in check and cut him off when I thought he’d had too much, that I would never draw a line for him. A person has to set their own limits. I think most have to cross their line before they can know where it is. Joel’s line was pretty far out there, but he found it.
Eventually, he came back. Slowly blinking his eyes after five long minutes. Still very drunk, despite the sobering bonk on the head. He laid there for quite some time, experimenting with the movability of his extremities, but still not lifting his head. There was a decent crowd of onlookers hovering the scene. Quite a show it was. Everyone wanted to help. Not that there was much to do but wait and see if he could still walk. It seemed like too much, the intent was genuine but I wanted them to go away and stop gawking. Randy could help me carry him to the dinghy if need be.
After his brief encounter with death, Joel must’ve been feeling darkly prophetic. At any rate, he apparently didn’t appreciate those trying to make light of a scary situation by joking and poking at him. He joked a bit at first, still groggy. But as consciousness returned and drunken hostility took over, he started shouting. Something about, “I’ll see all you mother fuckers in the afterlife!” “You’re all afraid to die.. But I’m not”
I felt like rolling my eyes. Clearly, dude. You just proved that.
It went on like that for a while, attacking anyone who knelt down to had him some water or suggest he try sitting up. Then a kindly looking older lady, Debbie, put her hand on his. She explained that all of these people weren’t laughing *at* him, they were just so glad he was okay and they wanted to help! Her words fell on deaf ears.
“Have you read Socrates?” He challenged her, still lying on his back with his head in my lap. “Because I have.”
I looked at her apologetically. But then she surprised us both.
“Actually, I have. In the original Greek.”
Wow. Go Debbie. She had my respect immediately, Joel wasn’t finished.
“So, you know about the 2’s and the 3’s.”
She spoke carefully, “I know he wanted to live. That he valued life and the precious gift of the time we have here.”
This didn’t go over well. I don’t remember any specifics of what Joel retorted with, but he was in the mood to do the preaching, not to be preached at.
Flustered, offended, and red in the face, she backed away quickly, as if he might try biting her next.
It was then I decided we should try standing, with all the spunk he seemed to have, and make our graceless exit. It took a few extra hands but once he was upright, adrenaline must’ve taken over. He was positively animated. Walking just fine, requiring only a hand to lead him, stumbling, in the right direction.
We made it to the dinghy. I had hoped he would calm down enough to just sit tight and let me drive it back to the boat. Silly me. Some drunken people follow directions well, helpless and clumsy like toddlers but relatively easy to control. Others, well they just aren’t. Joel was aggressively stubborn. He refused to let me drive the dinghy. Instead, I had to give directions to the blind man, half blind myself in the dark. As we narrowly missed boats and anchor lines, I wondered if both of us might still die before the night was over.
Miraculously, we found the boat even without her anchor light and we made it safely aboard. Never have I been so happy to return to Chak after a night on shore.
Little did I know, the night was far from over.
What remained was puking, lots of puking. Dutifully I pulled his hair off of his face, and patted him on the back. “There there, you did this to yourself you know.” When the puking was over, we both lay down again to get some rest. But then he woke up in a panic attack. Finally sobering up after all the puking, he felt for the first time the horrible pain that was his head and neck. Remembering nothing of the events that had transpired, Joel was convinced he was paralyzed.
“I can’t move my head! I can’t move my neck, at all!!” His eyes squinted with the effort to pick up his head from the pillow, but it wouldn’t budge.
“Shh.. It’s okay.” I consoled him as best I could, as well as one can console a newly minted paraplegic. “I promise, you can move. You walked on the beach, you drove the dinghy..”
This went on for sometime. Joel telling me he was paralyzed – he had never felt any pain like this before – while I promised him that he wasn’t but failed to do any convincing. I explained what had happened, every detail that was lost from his memory. Finally, he pulled himself upright, with a Herculean sort of defiance. Sober enough to confront his thoughts and determined not to be paralyzed, Joel stood up and walked outside while I just lay back down. Then, shouting, crying, laughing, he spoke directly to God.
They seemed to reach a kind of understanding.
This was on the fifth night of being in Georgetown. The recovery would take five more days of laying low. He moved as little as possible in first two days after the fact, the swelling in his forehead made just standing for longer than a couple minutes impossible. But then he started coming around. Even becoming well enough to go back to Volleyball Beach once more, to show his face, to embrace the humility, and to fix the dinghy.
Ten days in total were spent in Georgetown. We pulled anchor and were underway again on the 13th, my birthday.
Sterling warned us that going south of Georgetown would separate the neophyte cruisers from the real sailors. Boy was he right.
We skated away from Georgetown having planned to rest and recoup, yet finding ourselves (Joel mostly) a bit worse off than when we had arrived. Knowing that he was quite lucky to be as physically capable as he was, considering what could have been.
If only we knew the tests that were yet to come…