Cruising: Memories Made by People You Meet

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Who wouldn’t want to put down roots somewhere as beautiful as the Berry Islands?

Who wouldn’t want to put down roots somewhere as beautiful as the Berry Islands?

Steve greeted my boyfriend, Phillip, and me as soon as we tied Plaintiff’s Rest, our 1985 Niagara 35, up to his dock on one of the Berry Islands in the Bahamas. He was tall, cheerful and clad in a hodge-podge of clothes one might wear to paint a house: oversized, grungy and old. His shoes were duct-taped together. His hat was dirty and crooked. When his wife, Pat, came out of the house, she looked like the painter’s apprentice, draped in a stained men’s button-down, three sizes too big for her, and sporting blue pants, pink Crocs. I loved them both instantly, even before I heard their life story.

I’ll be honest. When SAIL’s editor suggested a “hindsight” article before we left on our first cruise to the Bahamas—“looking back, what was your biggest takeaway?”—I had every reason to think it was going to be some favorable route, some weather-watching lesson, some provisioning tip. Yet, as always—and this never ceases to amaze and surprise me—our biggest takeaway anytime Phillip and I voyage to a new shore is always, undeniably, the people.

From the third-generation lobsterman who took us through the Devil’s Backbone in Eleuthera, to the fourth-generation concher who shared his secret on how to make the best conch salad in the Abacos (I’m not telling), to Ebonita and her adorable granddaughter who flat-out refused, “as a matter of Haitian courtesy,” to charge me for my first-ever loaf of her heavenly, home-made Bahamian bread, these are generous, humble people who welcome you into their untouched pockets of the world, treat you like family and leave you spellbound with their stories.

Sailboat coming in the Chub cut, sailboat coming in the Chub cut,” a voice crackled over the radio. Phillip and I did a quick 360. There wasn’t any other sailboat anywhere, much less one coming into the “Chub cut” that day. Phillip smiled as he grabbed the handheld: “Sailboat in the Chub here.”

Grab one of those mooring balls up ahead. No charge and good holding in this current. Dropped ‘em myself!” the mystery man on the other end of the radio laughed. “Then dinghy over to our pier. We’re the yellow house on the end. I’m Steve. Wife’s Pat. See you soon.”

All this, offered to a couple of complete strangers, over the radio.

From left: Phillp, Annie and Steve go lobster hunting

From left: Phillp, Annie and Steve go lobster hunting

Generous: “The trusses were longer than the boat!” Steve said excitedly as we made our way up to his “yellow house on the end,” explaining how he and his family built a life on an island with no running water, no electricity, no trash service, no grocery store. An inveterate engineer, Steve told us how he and his son had mixed up concrete by hand, rigged up a 600-watt solar supply for the house, built a cistern for water, and “rebuilt twice after Matthew and Andrew.” If they can’t grow, create or catch it on the island, they have to fly it in from Nassau or sail it in.

“On a boat named Gusto!” Pat cackled while telling us about the years she, Steve and their two children, then ages 9 and 11, spent sailing around the Caribbean in the 1980s on a custom 50ft ketch. Eventually they sailed into the Berries and immediately decided to build a house there, a place they call their “cruising-season home,” the same home where Steve and Pat were now regaling us during one of our many “eclectic canned dinners” as Pat called them: conch spaghetti, snapper tacos, and bean surprise, which is quite surprising! Despite the sparse provisions they already had to be exceptionally sparing with, Steve and Pat invited us ashore every night to share whatever bounty Steve had speared or helped us spear that day, which at the age of 72 was nothing short of— “Gusto!” I repeated after Pat. “To live with vigor, that’s a great name for a boat.”

“No,” Pat corrected. “Steve saw it on a Schlitz commercial. ‘Go with gusto!’ it said.” Pat laughed as she tipped up an imaginary can. “So we did! Speaking of drinks,” Pat paused, “would you like a Rum-And?”

Improvising: Pat (at right) brings a porcelain BBQ into service

Improvising: Pat (at right) brings a porcelain BBQ into service

Unique: “And whatever we can find!” Pat added, finishing our every thought as Steve told us how, after many flights back and forth from Nassau to bring in supplies, he and his son decided to get their pilot’s licenses to “fly the puddle jumpers ourselves!” As if it was something every average Joe did. I had to wonder what other amazing vehicles Steve was capable of piloting.

“Submarines!” Pat said with a smile, telling us about the submarine-building program for high school students Steve had championed while working as a construction technology teacher in the 1990s. “We had no idea back then if we were teaching them enough while homeschooling on the boat, but we must have done something right,” Pat mused, “because our boy, Steve, was the best 16-year-old submarine engineer anyone has ever seen.”

Phillip and I were simultaneously side-split and awe-inspired by their rich history: from Steve’s bolted-in porch chair seats and the wire-to-battery startup in “Mr. Toad,” the island vehicle he’d Frankensteined for them, to Pat’s brilliant idea to fly them to Hungary to have their root canals done on the cheap as a “tooth-for-one special” medical vacation. It became clear these are people who get creative rather than complain and always see the upside in everything. Nothing was better proof of this than when, on our way to the “turtle side” of Chub Cay, we got stuck in the sand.

Satisfied: “Well, it wouldn’t be any fun if we just got there,” Pat chuckled, digging sand out from under the tire for an hour in sweltering heat—at 71 years old, I might add.

“It’ll be a hot dog potty,” Steve announced when we couldn’t find a good spot in the sand to roast our hot dogs for lunch, and Pat suggested an old, discarded toilet bowl, which worked beautifully until it half-shattered from the heat. Man, that was a great lunch.

Tested: “He lived more in his 21 years than most do in a lifetime,” Pat said when telling us about the horrific plane crash while departing Florida for Nassau that took her young son’s life and almost crippled her.

Optimistic: “But my pity party ended when the nurse told me: ‘Out of the four halo patients on my ward here, you’re the only one who will ever walk again,’” Pat said, driving the message home like a stake in the heart.

The people Phillip and I meet out there—the Steve and Pats, with gusto!—will always be our biggest takeaway anytime we travel. It was certainly true of our first trip to the Bahamas, and they’re out there, waiting for you, too. Waiting to welcome you into their world, to share their knowledge and their tables, and season your soul with their stories. Find them! And, go with gusto. 

Annie Dike and Phillip are heading south again this spring from their base in Pensacola, Florida

May 2019

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