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Chapter 41
Staniel Cay Stumble Bums

Staniel Cay is typical of the small islands found throughout the outer islands of the Bahamas. The small village was one tiny cement block house after another. The island also had an airstrip. Too short for any commercial carrier, it catered to the many small light propeller aircraft that traversed the Caribbean. It was just another place to land during their island hopping flights.
I was told the whole place was built for a Hollywood film company, to support their film crew. There was another island that lay nearby. It was named Thunderball Cay. It was small, high, and uninhabited. It was also hollow and contained what the locals called Thunderball Cave. Both cave entrances were below the surface of the sea. With snorkel, mask, and fins, one dove through the entrance and swam inside the island into the cave. This was a must-see for me. The name had come from the film crew from years earlier. It was here they filmed part of the James Bond movie, Thunderball - 007. The cave had been used as the villains' hideout.

Friendships were established with others on the few boats anchored off Staniel. Almost instantly, a cave exploring party was called for and together, by dinghies and Zodiaks, we went over to Thunderball. I questioned the absence of underwater lights.

I had done several dives in Hawaii and its underwater lava tubes. Beyond the entrance, it gets pitch black. I was told lights were unnecessary, as the movie company had punched three holes in the cave ceiling and during the middle of the day, with the sun at its zenith, the whole cave was entirely lit up.
One at a time, we dove and swam inside. When it was my turn, I made my dive and surfaced inside. The rest followed. I, of course, was the youngest, at 21. Everyone else was in their thirties and forties, husbands and wives who, according to their own life stories, found this lifestyle attractive, at least for the moment. Inside, as each popped to the surface, we looked around in silence at the huge domed rock ceiling. A ledge cropped out on one side, even with the water's surface. The sunlight formed three bright spotlights inside and a pale blue light glowed from the crystal clear water inside. Two to three fathoms deep, with its sandy bottom, it was like being inside a large beautiful egg. We all became the same age inside, (i.e. kids.) We laughed, played, and splashed each other. My Nikonos III was passed around. I compensated the lens for the available light and some great photos were taken. Although I'd return again several times, it's that first time that always stands out in my memory. It's a case of not knowing what you are about to see, until you get there. It was part of the magic.

Staniel also had a phone that sporadically worked and could be used to call the United States. Making a phone call was an all-day affair, but eventually I got through to New York. My update was brief and I told them that until the winds returned, it looked like I'd be here for a while. We were entering the height of hurricane season (September) and the Exumas were charmed with not having had one pass through for as long as anyone could remember. It was a good place to hole up.

I could always hitch a ride to shore from someone in the anchorage. People came and went all day. Hitching a ride is normally unheard of, but so was Dream. At twelve feet long, no one expected her to support a dinghy in tow. One morning, I wanted to go ashore, and waited for the next person to go. There was a boy scout troop on this island and a model sailboat regatta was slated for the day. I brought my camera, as this sounded like great fun, for the kids as well as the spectators.
I introduced myself to the scout master and he in turn announced to the troop who I was. I was there to take photos and perhaps write an article for a magazine back in the United States. This only increased these young boys' enthusiasm. The sailboats were all hand carved, and the lines were taken off the single-masted Bahamian sailing smack. Those boats were the mainstay of the country's fishing fleet. Their rig is unique, somewhat like a catboat, and could sail closer to the wind than any boat I have ever seen. I have heard as close as ten degrees, but I doubt that, mostly because I can't imagine sailing that close to the wind. Dream was good for forty degrees off the wind, and that is very high for any boat.

The models had rudders that were hung to the keel with stiff copper wire. This style of construction I had never seen and the scoutmaster had one of the boys bring his boat over to me and explain. As the model made its way around the course, a triangle setup, the boy followed behind. Lightning fast, he would reach down and move the rudder, the only part they were allowed to touch. The stiff copper held it in this position and the model sailed in this manner around a complete round-robin course.
The boats were assembled at the starting line, with each captain waiting for the signal to start. The whistle was blown and the race began. The laughter and shouting grew as each chased his boat in knee deep water around the marks. It was a riot to watch. I took some pictures of the proud winner as he received his ribbon, and of course the whole troop as they proudly held their precious yachts up for me. (Unfortunately, all of this footage and several other rolls of film were lost in the mail when I sent them to New York.) With the afternoon events over, everyone began to drift home.

I was sitting on a rock, winding the film I shot back into its canister, and disassembling the camera to load a new roll, when a man is his forties came up to me and introduced himself as Ed Henry, and we shook hands. He was another American, but deeply tanned from years spent in the Caribbean. He didn't know who I was, other than I was obviously a captain of some boat. He figured it must be something very large and formal. This he had judged from my dress, khaki pants, white shirt, and the black captain's cap I always wore with its gold wreath emblem.

Ed explained that he had recently bought the very same type of camera. He knew nothing about it, including how to load it. Ed invited me over to his boat for a drink and asked if I could show him how to use the Nikonos. It turned out that Ed was the captain of the only yacht tied up at the dock of the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, Avonturia. She was one of the finest yachts I had ever seen. She was seventeen tons and 46 feet in length. Flush teak deck, her hull was cold-rolled steel with a clipper bow. So smooth were her lines, the only way you could tell she was steel was by putting a magnet to her hull. She was as short rigged as a ketch. Built in Briele, Holland, she was privately owned by an eye surgeon back in the States. Along with the owner's occasional arrivals with his family for some sailing in the Caribbean, she was also available for private charter. She was beautiful, and I could only envy Ed for the life he led. Mostly, we talked about the camera, underwater photography and diving. I mentioned I was sailing around the world, and nothing more.

I was invited to stay for dinner. Avonturia had a freezer and refrigerator and Ed served up steak! It had been months since I tasted red meat. I was in heaven. Funny, but through the afternoon and evening, we never talked about Dream. Ed was a bluewater sailor and had spent twenty years at sea. With that kind of background, sea stories get old, and I didn't notice as I had many other interests that Ed and I shared in common.

It was getting late and in Ed's Zodiak, he took me back out to Dream. Through the dark of night, with a hand-held spotlight, we made our way through the inner anchorage. Dream was in outer anchorage where the large yachts normally anchored and Ed thought nothing of it and expected something large to loom up in the light of the spotlight's beam. Dream was anchored alone. I put her here because the inner anchorage was rimmed with rock and I wanted clear water in case, in the middle of the night, I should suddenly have to get out of there, due to bad weather.

Dream was illuminated in the spotlight and Ed came up alongside. As I climbed aboard, Ed asked in astonishment, "What the hell is this?!"
"This...is Dream."
From her New York, USA lettered transom, Ed only laughed. This was a story he wanted to hear. The following morning, he came back out to Dream. We went back to Avonturia for breakfast, coffee, and a long story. I won't say Ed was impressed, but he certainly looked at me differently from then on. Avonturia was stuck there because of a blown inboard engine. While waiting for parts to be flown in from the States, the two of us spent our time diving the reefs, sitting under a ceiling fan at the yacht club, and playing the islands only sport--Basketball.

There was a paved half-court on the island, set up for the film crew's recreation, I supposed. Ed is as tall as I, and we had both played in school. The sound of the bouncing ball on the court reverberated throughout the village as we played one-on-one. Whatever locals were free would soon gravitate over and an impromptu game would ensue. On the day a plane from Florida was due with engine parts for Ed, he asked if I wanted to walk over the airstrip with him and wait. Ft. Lauderdale had told him they were sending along a surprise with this flight, but they said no more. Ed guessed it was food delicacies and we both hoped it was pepperoni.

Anyway, I had the chance to go back to Thunderball Cave with folks on a boat that had just arrived. I'd see Ed later that evening. After another day of exploring, playing, and diving, I went over to Avonturia and knocked on the hull. I had thoughts of pepperoni on my mind when Ed slid the main hatch open and stuck his head outside. Avonturia also had air conditioning. He smiled and signaled me to come aboard. Once aboard, I slid below and closed the hatch. As I turned around, Ed, standing in the galley, pointed to the main saloon and said, "Bill, this is the surprise, Bonnie Barnes," and he continued with the introduction, "Bonnie, this is Bill, the fellow I told you about, going around the world."

On the settee sat Bonnie. She was very pretty, and in her early thirties. She had long straight brown hair that almost reached her waist, and a smile that could warm any sailor’s heart. She was as much of a surprise to me as Ed, but the uneasiness of meeting someone new faded away in a short time. Bonnie had a tone of voice that put you at ease instantly and that night she went through a quick personal bio. Born and raised on a farm in Indiana, she graduated Ball State University and found her way to Florida. She worked as the City Planner for Boca Raton. Tiring of the politics of city government, she longed for some sun, sand, and sea. With someone she knew in Ft. Lauderdale, this opportunity had presented itself and she just quit up and quit her job, and boarded the plane.
Friendships were made almost immediately and through the end of August, the three of us were inseparable. The first day we found the basketball court, the three of us just shot baskets for awhile. Bonnie, after tolerating our courtesy to her for a while, got bored and asked if we could play real basketball, one on two, who ever had the ball was on their own. Ed and I just looked at each other. We towered over her, but she had grown up on a farm with five brothers.

Never content with sitting on the porch in a dress while watching her brothers play, she, at an early age, had learned to be "just one of the boys." She put her hair in a ponytail, and we threw the ball to her. The game began. At first, Ed and I held back in the spirit of fairness. Bonnie took advantage of this. She was fast, agile, and sneaky. It didn't take long to realize we’d been had. Ed was a better player than I, but Bonnie gave us both a run for our money. The sound of the bouncing ball had been absent for a couple of days, and with its return, so did the locals. Three on three games now began. At first, they made the same mistake we did. It also didn't take them long to realize what the little spitfire added to our team was.

Sweaty, we sat back at the yacht club and had a beer. Ed dubbed our team the Staniel Cay Stumble Bums and we raised our glasses and toasted to it. A new team was formed and daily we played a game or two with the locals. So inseparable were the three of us, we were called "The Three Musketeers." When that got back to me, I smiled sadly. I had been called that a couple of summers ago, far, far away from Staniel Cay.

Nights were spent on Avonturia talking. But more importantly, Ed and I monitored the weather reports on the radio. It was hurricane season and we tracked any potential storms. In mid-August, a system formed off the coast of Africa. As it made its way across the Atlantic over the next two weeks, it organized itself into a full hurricane. It was named David. Breaking from years of tradition, David was the first hurricane named with a male name. Prior, they had always been exclusively female in name. We all, male and female sailors alike, grumbled about this. The Feminists had even reached the sea.

We tracked David as he slammed into the Lesser Antilles and entered the Caribbean Sea. With much relief, Ed and I sat back. With the mountains of Hispaniola and Cuba between us, David was no longer a concern. Hurricanes never move north from there, but instead, usually go west into Central America or Cuba and into the Gulf of Mexico. Basically, someone else's problem.

Our days passed with our usual routine until one night aboard Avonturia, the radio announced David had stalled in his westward movement, and then turned due north. Ed and I looked at each other. The next day, David crossed over Hispaniola as expected. He tore himself up over the mountains of Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Once north of the island, he was disorganized, and reduced to storm wind conditions. We breathed a sigh of relief. But David didn't want to die, and sat just north of the island. Feeding from the warm waters of a summer's Atlantic, David reformed. As he grew in strength, so did our concern. Oblivious to all this, Bonnie read while Ed and I talked. Ed had spent 20 years down here and was at a loss as to what David was doing. Hurricanes weren't familiar to this chain of islands, but something about David was different.

While we played basketball the next day, David slowly drifted due west until he hit the northeast tip of Cuba, then stalled again. His winds were now up to 150 knots and David was now a killer. He had claimed almost 1,000 lives in the Dominican Republic. With David now on Cuba, his position was several hundred miles due south of us. Ed and I looked at the pilot charts of the Caribbean. They contain much useful information and our number one item of interest at the moment was the tracks of hurricanes from previous years. From where David was, the others generally moved west. None moved north, which was the only course David could take to threaten us.

That night, it was decided that regardless of where David went, it was time to find a more secure anchorage. Ed made arrangements to get Avonturia towed to Compass Cay, fourteen miles to the north. There was a large twin engine sport fisherman in Staniel at the moment and the captain agreed to do it. John Wells, Jr. was young but more than competent. He skippered this half million dollar yacht, Milky Way, alone, for the owner. There were two things about John that stood out to me. One was that he was the spitting image of the singer John Denver, right down to the wire rim glasses. The other was his pat phrase, closing any exciting story with, "What a trip!" He was about to go on the trip of a lifetime. I chose Cave Cay, seventeen miles to the south. It was incredibly protected, but had a sandbar prohibiting entrance to most boats. I could push Dream sideways across the sandbar. The lagoon inside was surrounded by high stone cliffs and Dream and I would have no problem there.
Ed dropped me off at Dream, and we all decided to move first thing in the morning. Still everyone spoke of how it was unheard of a hurricane moving into our area. David would have to go due north and that simply doesn't happen with hurricanes! Even the pilot charts said the same thing. We all continued to reassure ourselves.

That night, as we all slept uneasily, David began to move--due north.


 

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