Northeast trades: 25 knots, gusting 30. The quarter-wake hissing.
My 29-year-old son, Noah, and I had just shaken out the reef in the mainsail on our little Bahamas sloop and fallen off onto a reach in the lee of Great Guana Cay when we saw the old salt.
Screaming out of the settlement’s harbor, he held the tiller of a sky-blue sailing skiff with a casual at-homeness I have seen only among men raised on the water, under sail. Men like the oystermen of Chesapeake Bay, the conch-smack sailors of the Bahamas.
The faded oxford shirt, the dirty, patched khakis spoke of a man who had crossed oceans in those same clothes. A man of these ragged cays on the eastern edge of backwater. A belonger. I could picture the weathered white-frame cottage he called home, its peaked roof, the chipping blue paint on the hurricane shutters, the pile of conch shells by the door, the bougainvillea blossoms.
In no time he was on us, sailing his skiff in formation, 10 yards to windward of the Jacqueline B., the sloop we keep in the Abaco Cays of the Bahamas for daysailing and pocket cruising.
“Hey, boys. This is a social breeze!” The old salt’s face, brine flecked, sparkled as he veered across our stern and headed offshore into the 2-foot chop roiling up the Sea of Abaco.
“Who’s that?” asked Noah.
“I believe he wants to race,” I said.
So we scrubbed our mission to reach Bakers Bay by noon and for the next hour traded tacks with him.
Crystal water, brilliant sun. Warm spray coming aboard. Gaining on him to weather. Noah at the helm finding the sloop’s groove, me hanging feet and legs over the windward rail. But losing ground off the wind as the old salt played his skiff’s mainsheet, tuning/retuning his instrument with each jolt of wind. We were small boats punching through the chop, cheek-to-cheek, then turning, surfing before a blistering breeze at better than 6 knots.
Finally, he tacked away, giving us a quick salute with his sheet hand. He disappeared behind the harbor breakwater.
“That was epic!” said Noah. “Epic sailing.”
Five days earlier Noah had flown in from Los Angeles, I from Boston, for a week of cruising the cays in our 20-foot sloop with the jaunty clipper bow. And every day we had winds of 22 knots or better: Strong enough to cancel the weekly dinghy racing in Hope Town on Elbow Cay. Strong enough for the moderator of the morning cruiser’s net to say it was a good week to harbornate with a long book. Strong enough to keep so many sailors in port that finding a vacant mooring in Hope Town had been hopeless for us.
Until Noah said we had to stop thinking like tourists and start sailing like the old Bahamians. Sailing as if sloop boats and fishing smacks were the only means of travel. If cruising on this little boat was going to be something more than spray in the face and cramped quarters, we had better damn well learn how to work with the trade winds. And everything else that comes with them in the Out Islands.
That was the night we dropped a kedge off the stern and tied a bow line to a mangrove tree near the foot of Hope Town’s famous candy-striped lighthouse. The night we stopped using the engine for the rest of the cruise. The first night we really snuggled into our berths in the tiny cuddy, sipping our tea, staring up through the companionway to a meteor shower and Venus flirting with the moon. And Radio Nassau pulsing softly with local calypso, rake n’ scrape.
Reading the two books we had aboard made it easier for me to slip into the old Bahamian ways. The first, Out Island Doctor, by Evans Cottman, is the tale of an American ex-pat who found a new life in the islands 50 years ago. Those were the days when yammies were still something you eat, not hang in pairs off the transom of your go-fast craft. The days when a trip from Nassau to Crooked Island took six days in a leaky sloop, the provisions nothing but soggy johnnycakes called moonbread. While passengers and crew sang Bible hymns all night until the Lord was pleased to calm the seas at day clean. That’s sunrise in these islands.
The second volume we carried was Wendell Bradley’s hard-to-find, 1969 documentary narrative, They Live by the Wind, about his adventures among four of the last fleets of working sailboats. The final section of this book is a requiem for the lives of the sloop and smack sailors of the Bahamas. His prose is raw and lyrical with the voices of his Bahamian shipmates aboard sloops like the Unity B, Mystery J, Ragged Gal.
On a thrilling beat to Man-O-War Cay, I sailed with those voices playing in my head. Sometimes when a puff drove the lee rail under with a rush, I heard Captain Rupee Bain, of Mangrove Cay, saying Dis breeze got a good jowlful now. When Noah held the sloop to her course in gust after gust, I felt the pride in a young helmsman that the captain of the sloop Thunderbird voiced. He was wonderful…He felt those seas. He put her down like paper.
Nearing a line of cresting seas on a reef, I heard Cap Rupee calling the tack. Not my own voice, my own words, but in the old Bahamas sloop way, Get ready, mon…Gone.
Leaving Hope Town one afternoon for Matt Lowes Cay, we met a new challenge. The easterly trades had been blowing so long and so hard that the air shimmered with a thick, salty haze. Landscapes beyond two or three miles were gray smudges on the horizon, or nothing at all, as the Jacqueline B. romped toward the sun with a low hum in her taut sails, the water ahead a blinding sheet of crinkled foil.
Noah pulled off his sunglasses and washed his eyes with handfuls of bottled water as if the cleansing would sharpen his vision as he scanned the horizon for the bluff headland on Matt Lowes. But no luck. We could smell the coconuts and pines of land, but we could see nothing, feel nothing but our vessel. The sloop rolling and yawing, charging forward in a cocoon of diamonds.
So it was that I came unstuck in time again, was sailing with Cap Rupee, searching for a landfall in the Exumas after a long passage from Andros. The young man’s silhouette braced between the main shroud and the mast was Noah’s, but it might just as well have been Rupee Bain’s bow watch, King, when he swung out his arm, pointing to our ten o’clock, and sang out with our landfall in sight.