We sailed into Settlement Bay at Gauna Cay, intending to anchor, but the windlass wouldn’t work , so we ended up mooring next to a trawler named “Brokedown Palace.” Isn’t that just the perfect name for a cruising vessel? Oh, don’t worry. The windlass wasn’t broken. We had nudged a fuse while fixing something else and nudged it back into place the next day. No matter. Because we were moored, we got to meet Troy Albury, a true Bahamian hero.
Troy Albury and the Bakers Bay Controversy
Mooring fields are designed to squeeze as many vessels in as small a space as possible. They afford little privacy and less security, since you never know how strong the line or the anchor at the end of it is. But they are easy. You pick up the float and pull up theline attached to it at one end and some heavy object on the other, and loop it around your cleat. Done. Anchored. You pay for this, usually about $20 a night.
Our “landlord” knocked on the hull for payment at 7 the next morning. Ryan popped his head out of the forward hatch, right above the v-berth where we were sleeping, and, after recognizing the man’s voice, said, “Hey! Aren’t you the guy we hear every morning on the Cruisers’ Net?” “That would be my evil twin,” Troy Albury answered. Troy has a great reputation as an all-around good fellow, island councilman, environmental activist, chief of Guana Cay Fire and Rescue, and the very knowledgeable and capable owner of Dive Guana. We listen to him nearly every morning.
It was nice to meet him, and he kindly agreed to meet us over at the dive shop, as we needed to buy new snorkels. First we took our boat over to Fisher’s Bay and anchored off shore from Dive Guana. We were the only boat there, and that was heavenly. After paying Troy for the mooring and the snorkels, we set off on foot for the grocery store, which was incredibly well-stocked. They even had Lactaid! (But no corn tortillas, unfortunately.) If you’re looking to replenish your galley, go here, but first stop at Milo’s farm stand for vegetables and fruit.
As we lugged our groceries back to the dinghy, a friendly old-timer urged us to hop into his golf cart. He set off at a frighteningly fast pace and talked as rapidly and as haphazardly as he drove. His sister, he said, used to own lots of property on the Cay, but “wouldn’t hear no more about the Bahamas.” She still owned a “big mansion,” he said, gesturing towards a driveway that disappeared behind a thicket, but never visited it. She preferred her estate with horses and dogs in North Carolina. He, himself, was the first Abaconian we met who had not been born in Nassau. He was born on Guana, and he loved it, but he had nothing nice to say about Bakers Bay, the exclusive resort for wealthy and famous foreigners that went in about five years ago.
Although by law all beaches in the Bahamas belong the people and are public, Bakers Bay restricts access to the north end of the Cay. You can moor in the bay, and technically can land on the beach, but Bakers Bay guards will harass you until you leave. A patrolled fence with gates prevents all locals and tourists from entry by land. Locals used to be allowed to walk there, but someone took a photograph of some football player, who made a fuss, and that was that.
Before the resort at Bakers Bay was developed, the majority of residents protested, alongside Save Guana Cay Reef, other Bahamian conservation groups, Greenpeace, Global Coral Reef Alliance, Mangrove Action Network, Ocean Futures Society, and the Sierra Club. As Jean-Michel Cousteau wrote to the Prime Minister,
…the Bakers Bay Golf and Ocean Club development on Great Guana Cay may undermine the environmental health of the region; specifically affecting the nesting sea turtles of Gumelemi Cay and to the north, and impacting the neighboring reefs.
The Bahamian government, reputed to be deeply corrupt and indifferent to environmental concerns, ignored all complaints and let the resort go in.
By no means an expert on coral reefs, even I can tell that these reefs are hurting. Out at Fowl Cay, you can see large swathes of once vibrant brain coral, browned and dulled. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Troy Albury, via Guana Cay Blog, which “reports on the science of coral reef conservation, and in particular the effects of golf courses, marinas and large developments adjacent to pristine marine habitats”:
What we have seen, and as evidenced by these photos, is an increase in black band disease, white plague and brown spot disease at the north end of Guana Cay, at the Cathedral dive site, which was studied and catalogued well before construction on the golf course had begun. Dr. Risk, Dr. Cervino and Dr. Goreau all dove the reef in 2005 and 2006 and found not a single case of disease. Now, the disease is rampant and the corals are being killed. Also, there is an alarming amount of algae present which is slowly smothering the reef.
Mr. Albury refers here to Dr. Michael J. Risk, an ecologist at McMaster University, Hamilton, Dr. James Cervino, a coral pathologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and Dr. Thomas Goreau, of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, who all protested the Bakers Bay mega-development and have been monitoring the devastating effect its fertilizer run-off has had on the reefs.
Our voluble host, however, did not appear to be too concerned about the environment. He seemed to object more to the fact that locals could no longer roam the island he grew up on than to the impact it already had and would have on the environment. We thanked him for the ride and scooted back to the boat, where we spent the rest of the day sheltering from rain.
An Evening at Nippers
We headed back to shore for dinner at Nippers, a brightly painted, slightly shabby party spot with cheap drinks and expensive food draped across a 40 foot sand dune. We drank too much and ate too little. I remember twirling on the deck to music I can’t remember. At one point I headed down the beach, found to a dark spot, and lay back in the sand, looking up at the stars. I do not know how long I stayed there. I do know that Ryan was frantic when I finally stumbled back, and justly scolded me for wandering off into the night without telling him where I was going.
Sunrise at Guana Cay
The next morning I made coffee while it was still dark and sat out on “the porch,” our cockpit, to watch the dawn come to Guana. The temperature felt much colder than the actual 68 degrees. I pulled on some capris and a stretch jacket and took shelter under the dodger. Far off to port, a green navigation light blinked steadily, but otherwise the darkness obscured the horizon. As the sky paled, the silhouette of Delia’s Island, a small, scrubby green rock at the mouth of Fisher’s Bay, showed itself 50 yards from our stern. To the north white, triangular rooftops perched like seabirds on the shore. As the sun rose, the undersides of the clouds turned violet and cobalt. Darker masses, still fringed with silver, glowered over the island, portending rain. The Northeast wind ruffled up the lagoon into rippling, milky green waves. Our dinghy, Freya, bobbed at our stern, and the water slapping rhythmically against its aluminum floor and rubber sides sounded almost like someone walking. As the sun rose higher, heavy, puffy clouds swam like manatees across a pale lavender sky. A wan yellow light reflected off the crinkly surface of the clear, green and gray water. It was low tide, and Delia’s bony, dead coral underskirts were showing.
At 8:15 we tuned in the Cruiser’s Net and hear Troy say,
Good morning cruisers and the only thing I can say is, don’t shoot the messenger! There is nothing good to say about the weather! It won’t be good for diving or sun-bathing. So basically in English there is one front on top of us, another trying to come down, they’re both going to merge and make for rainy, breezy weather for the next couple of days.
We sighed. Would this rain ever end? At least it wasn’t raining at the moment, so Ryan drove the dinghy around Delia Island while I hung over the bow, peering through a look-bucket, following a lead in our often misleading “guide”book that said this would be a good place to snorkel. We saw a few small brown fish and plenty of grass, nothing special, so we took our gear back to the boat and decided to go for a walk on the beach instead.
As we headed down the main road that skirts the beach at Settlement Bay on the Sea of Abaco, we saw a bow-legged man in word plaid shorts, a grey tee-shirt and a baseball hat walking his tiny black pincher. Barking like a banshee, the doglet lunged at a cat and the man yelled at the dog in Guana dialect, which sounds like a cross between London Cockney and North Carolina drawl. “Stop that! You bad dog! You cahn’t be barking! The caht has a right to live!” He was still crouched down cursing the creature as we turned down the lane to Nippers.
We walked down through a spooky, shady grove of palm trees clustered around three large, sandy puddles, then headed up past the cemetery, and the well sign-posted Poisonwood tree (do not touch! you WILL get a rash) and climbed the hill to Nippers. We braced ourselves for the crowd that allegedly deluges the place on Sundays for the well-advertised “pig roast,” and I instinctively flinched as we neared the deafening din of pop tunes blaring from under the huge, circular, thatch-palm roof that shelters the outdoor bar.
In spite of the noise, the place was relatively empty. A drowsy couple dangled their feet in the freshwater pool at the top of the hill, but the lower lagoon was empty, as were all the beach chairs around it and on the decks above. A few 20-something men leaned against the worn, horseshoe-shaped bar, nursing bottles of Kalik and plastic cups of Nipper’s signature drink, frozen pink punch spiked with four kinds of rum.
Six middle-aged, white women seemed to be celebrating something at a table overlooking the beach. They all sported red kerchiefs studded with yellow, blue and green plastic globules, which I assumed were meant to resemble fruit. Was this odd headgear the Bahamian version of the short veils Yorkshire girls wear when they bar-hop to toast the bride the night before her wedding? These women seemed too old for that. A few of them had tied tattered hula skirts around their thickening waists. Perhaps this was standard island pig-roast attire? A waitress chatted with a bartender, smiled benignly as we slipped past her and hurried over to the stairs that lead down the dune to the broad beach that faces the third-largest barrier reef in the world.
The rain had stopped but the sky remained overcast. Breaking over the reef, what looked like fifteen to twenty waves of six- and seven-feet rollers raced towards the shore, churning up the bay. Swimming, and snorkeling much more, was out of the question, but we were grateful for a relatively dry walk. Sinking deeply into the velvety sand, I tore off my blue-green sarong and marched ahead in the one-piece suit that supposedly takes ten pounds off my figure. Ryan stuck closer to the water, where the sand is harder. We walked about a mile, down as far as the tide would let us go, then turned around and headed back.
I found two good-luck charms on the beach: a sea bean, an extremely hard nut that grows on African trees and washes up on Bahamian beaches, and a small, white plastic globe on a tattered blue rope. Sea beans polish up beautifully and are often used in jewelry. The float probably came from a fishing boat. Locals hang them from trees like charms or talismans to ward off bad spirits. I planned to decorate our stern with this one. It would also come in handy for the rare occasions when we paid to tie up to a mooring and wanted to mark it as reserved.
As we passed back through Nippers, and a coat-rack that read, “leave bikini tops here,” I noticed that the fruit-headed women and bar-supporting men had been joined by another small group of retirement-age tourists. Otherwise, the place was still empty. Since Ryan and I had spent too much time and money there the night before, we felt little urgency to linger, and frankly grateful leave its ear-splitting speakers.
Milo and Edmond
On the main road in town, which skirts Settlement Bay on the Sea of Abaco side, we stopped to have a look at Milo’s produce. We quickly realized that the bow-legged man with the fierce cat-menacing dog was Milo himself, and a very friendly person to boot. He offers his wares right in front of the old wooden cottage where he was born. We bought a mango, a papaya, four oranges, and a fat sweet onion for 12 dollars. He also had potatoes, red onions, good-looking tomatoes and apples for sale, all grown on the island. When I asked Milo if I could take the picture of him and his dog, below, he said, “For a good-looking woman like you?” One is never to old to appreciate a good flirt.
Having had such a pleasant time chatting with Milo, we settled ourselves down at the quirky little bar that his brother, Edmond, owns nextdoor. Although Milo is well-known among tourists and locals alike for his knowledge about Abaco history, it was Edmond who regaled us with stories about his life on Guana Cay before the tourists began to come. He, too, was born in the little house behind the farm stand, which his parents rented while they farmed the land almost a century ago. They grew tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, onions, oranges, mangoes, and bananas. Edmond bought real estate as quickly and as often as he could, he said. He recently had to sell a number of his lots, sadly, to pay his wife’s medical bills. After expressing my sympathy, I asked him how he met her.
In the late 1940s, Edmond related, “six girls and one boy” arrived in Marsh Harbor looking for a ride to the southern tip of Guana Cay, where they had rented a house. Edmond happened to be there on business and offered them a ride. After he dropped them off, he said with a grin, he rushed back to his friends and announced that the island had “fresh blood.” He spent the next few weeks sailing back between town and the newcomers, taking them out for excursions while pursuing a girl who ignored him. One day he found himself with “the other one,” and asked her if she’d like to go look at one of his boats. She said she would, and did, and so began their 70-year together. “What was it that made you fall in love with her after chasing after a different girl,” I asked. He looked at me as though I had asked a ridiculously obvious question, and said, “because she was gorgeous!”
Liam and other folks at the bar
While Ryan asked Edmond more questions about farming in the Abacos, I struck up a conversation with the bartender, a strikingly handsome young man with flaming red hair in a bright orange tank top. I will call him Liam. Like most Bahamians I’ve met in the Abacos, he was born in Nassau, where there is a hospital, but grew up in here. He is my son’s age (24), and he told me that his mother, who lived in Florida, had recently suffered a loss. Her long-term boyfriend had died four days ago. Liam hadn’t liked him very much, but he was concerned about his mother, and didn’t know whether or not she would stay in Florida or return to the islands. I put on my therapist’s non-judging, listening ears and tried not to interrupt or direct the conversation, so that he could say whatever he needed someone. He wasn’t telling me, of course, but rather someone who seemed, at least, to hear him without judgment. This couldn’t last much longer than the first drink he poured for me, but I meant well..
While we were talking a group of tourists I saw earlier at Nippers sauntered down the street, heading towards Grabbers, no doubt, a much flashier (and noisier) joint on the spit of sand between the Sea of Abaco and the ocean. Not long after, a fancy golf-cart dropped off two middle-aged men and two women, one of whom was much younger. We perked up, since up until that point we had been the only drinkers at the bar, and looked forward to meeting new people. I looked expectantly in their direction, hoping to catch an eye and start a conversation, but they avoided our gaze.
The new girl, who resembled a young Carly Simon in a baseball cap and large, square, black-rimmed glasses, seemed particularly determined to resist any contact with us. She looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place her. I must have stared rudely, since I was trying to figure out where we had seen her before, or how I knew her, plus it was easy and pleasant to contemplate the guy next to her, who was about forty years older and very good looking in a rugged, overly sun-tanned sort of way, ignored us completely. Their stand-offishness was not especially peculiar, but it did seem a tad atypical for such a tiny locale. The horseshoe-shaped bar seated barely six people, and it would have been easy to chat across it. No matter, I thought, Edmond and Ryan here are undoubtedly more fascinating. Then it occurred to me that the young girl might be some kind of pop star who assumes that everyone knows her, but whom I was too hopelessly out of touch generally to recognize. I didn’t notice when they left. Bakers Bay people.
Shortly afterwards, friendly faces appeared: Dakota and Will, a Polynesian-looking young woman and a young man with closely cropped, blond hair. We had met them the night before, at Nippers. They were Americans who crew on board a 160-foot yacht owned by a super-rich family that travels by plane to wherever they directed the boat to sail. It was currently anchored at Bakers Bay. When I asked Edmond his opinion about the luxury development, he asserted, “love it and hate it.” He liked the money it brought to the island and his bar, “I have 200 to 300 people on a Saturday night here,” during high season, he boasted. “I’d much rather be here than at Nippers,” Will chimed in. “So would I,” urged Dakota. “They all say that,” Edmond said, nodding.
It was nice talking to Dakota and Will until they commandeered the boombox. Somehow they persuaded Liam to play tunes from Dakota’s iphone. I wasn’t interested to learn what this worldly 23 year-old might enjoy, but horrified to hear that she liked only the worst bands from the 1970s and early 1980s: Boston, AC/DC, Lynnard Skynard, Kiss. Worst of all, she and Will both started shaking their heads left to right and banging their hands on the bar. I did my best not to notice, but was blessed or cursed by the gods with an acute ear for music.
Shortly before Dakota began tormenting us with bad late 1970s “music,” a new guy showed up who looked to be about our age. He was a tall, bespectacled fellow in a camp shirt, and shorts whose light hair curled out beneath his cap. His name was Bruce and he, Ryan and I hit it off immediately. He said he was a carpenter, a great come-on line if I ever heard one. But wasn’t his aim. He really was a carpenter, and very proud of his work. He told us he had built his house on the island, using rare hardwoods throughout. Ryan had also built a very special house by hand, so they lots to talk about.
Bruce and Ryan agreed that the music was intolerable, and when it became clear that Edmond, too, was losing his patience for it, I had the bad manners to tell Dakota, “You know, I couldn’t stand this stuff when it first tormented us on the airwaves, and find it hasn’t improved with age.” Well! That was enough for her!. She and Will downed their drinks and packed off to Grabbers. Bruce then very graciously invited us back to his house for dinner.
Bruce and Roger
We loaded ourselves into Bruce’s golf cart and took off on a bumpy ride to the southern end of the island, into a gated community that had so far not yet invested in concrete roads. Paths snaked off the main dirtway through thick, dense shrubs of poisonwood, sea grape, and gumbo limbo, and occasionally a sign announced the entrance to an unseen house. I completely lost my sense of direction as Bruce roared towards his home, which turned out to be exquisite, as promised. He had sent most of the lumber from his home in the US and done all the joinery himself on Guana.
Bruce had invited a few friends, two men in their late fifties or early sixties, who lived in houses nearby over and we all sat around his gorgeous, hand-crafted dining tables having a good ol’ time. It turned out we had met one of the friends before, when he was visiting the people who owned the Sabre moored next to us in Hopetown.
The other guy, Roger, said he was retired but it “didn’t take.” He was loving his new job as captain for a rich family, who owned a bad-ass fishing boat with three 300-horsepower engines. He promised to take us for a tour of the island on this fabulous vessel the next morning. Bruce drove us back to our dinghy, perilously, and we thanked him for his incredible hospitality. We felt very glad to have met him.
Roger really did show up alongside Sophia at around 9 am. And what an incredible journey he took us on! He got the boat up to 42 knots in no time at all, and the boat just hummed along without any of the bashing or crashing that one usually gets on a motorboat. Roger said the fastest he had gone was 57 knots, but that the boat really cruised best when doing over 30. He drove us all the way down to Scotland Cay and suggested a few places where we could anchor and snorkel. Later that day, he showed us his lovely house overlooking the Sea of Abaco and the garden that he has landscaped with native plants. He taught us about many of them, and showed us a tree that grows right next to the poisonwood tree, whose sap is said to help heal the rash one gets from poisonwood. I can’t remember what he called it, but am quite sure it was not gumbo-limbo. Roger also took us on another tour of the Cay in his golf cart. We thanked him profusely as well for his kindness to us, as well.
As we have found in our travels so far, it is the people you meet who make the cruising life wonderful and rich. We met some fascinating and genuinely generous, welcoming people on Guana Cay. We felt incredibly lucky to have encountered all of them.