Sailing and spear-fishing to the mood music of Bach, Vivaldi, and Herbie Mann

by Ida Little

Illustration by Terry Steadham

Just 50 miles off Palm Beach, Florida, lies the upper extremity of the Bahama Islands, an insular commonwealth that extends some 800 miles in a southeasterly direction to the north coast of Haiti. Most of the 700-island archipelago is undersea reef and sand, but 5,000 square miles break the surface and give each 40 inhabitants one square mile to share. Because the topsoil is so thinly infertile and fresh water is so rare, Bahamians have been forced to abandon the lands and cluster into the tourist societies of Nassau and Freeport, or into 60 scattered settlements that serve the cities with fish and sea salt.

This status quo could have left about 4,500 square miles on 650 islands completely uninhabited. However, smuggling fines and import duties are insufficient to support the expense of democracy. So, at the cost of $1,000 an acre, 100 islands have been purchased from the governors by development speculators, wealthy hermits, and yacht clubs searching for their place in the sun. This happily leaves 550 rocky and barren islands for adventurers to share with a few hardy birds and lizards. And, more importantly, provides a varied base and access to a coral sea.

For two years our home has been a lightweight nylon tent set in the shade of casuarina pines on one or another of these islands. It’s taken that long for my husband and me to make ourselves at home. Here, along the cays on the Bahamian littoral, we have come to feel increasingly at ease — have found a challenging privacy and isolation in which we are privileged to search for our own destiny.

Certainly, such privacy exists elsewhere. But rare, and nonexistent within our ken, is the combination with such a favorable year-round climate, easy accessibility to the resources and friendships of North America, and availability of edible wild game and fish.

The best way to describe the climate is to say that it is very steady and very friendly to nudity. The average year-round temperature is 77° F. During the summer it’s 80° and during the winter 73°. On winter evenings, when the mercury gets down to 68°, the breeze chills. Then it’s fun to put on clothes and stand around the fire drinking hot cocoa. Through the worst winter storm night, our favorite visitor slept on the hammock sheltered by only a tarpaulin.

Although the 100-mile passage from the continent to Nassau is inexpensive ($65 round trip), it somehow doubles the price of civilized fruits. With rare exception, you may expect to pay double U.S.A. prices for food, hardware, and lodgings. Liquor is a rare exception. It’s slightly cheaper. From Nassau, distribution of goods and people to the Out Islands is maintained by air with the larger settlements, and by irregularly scheduled freighters with the smaller places. Overnight mail boats will take a passenger (in 4-bunk cabins on a first-come-gets-it basis) for $10, and $20 will cover the cost of bunk and board to the most distant of the Out Islands — Great Inagua.

It was on Great Inagua that we learned camping skills. After a year’s cruise of the West Indies and South America, we wrecked our 40-foot ketch on a coral reef during a storm. At daybreak, when the weather cleared, we were able to swim ashore and, after 3 nights of camping and 50 miles of wandering, make our way to the only settlement. Our days on the island were so enjoyable, we were determined to return better prepared to continue exploration and pursue the pleasures of nomadism.

During a year of financial and spiritual recovery, we busied ourselves considering and testing ways in which we might resume our travels in comfort and safety, and with minimal expense. We had come back to the States with enough experience to recognize some possibilities. We wanted to stick to sail so as to be independent of costly fuel ($1.00 per gallon!) and the uncertainty of mechanical breakdowns. We wanted a boat that would be light enough for the two of us to beach, but that would carry enough for us to live for months independent of the storekeeper. And we wanted another vessel that would be fast, seaworthy, and convenient for setting up a diving platform.

We finally decided on a 17-foot plastic sailing canoe (ABS) and a 14-foot catamaran (Hobie Cat), though we were told by Alder Hobie, of Coast Catamaran, that his boat was not designed to tow a loaded canoe, and that we were out of our minds. By this time we’d had so much negative flak from so many, we didn’t care what Hobie said. We did it anyway. Luckily, it worked. In that year of searching, we found no alternative boat or boats that could have done the job.

We got the minimum inventory of snorkeling equipment, and because spear guns aren’t legal in the Bahamas, we chose Hawaiian slings as an economical spear-fishing alternative. A friend, Jack Stephenson, made us a 4-man insect-proof tent that weighed only 5 pounds and could be put up in 5 minutes. We took along a hammock, some waterproof plastic Nalgene lab containers for keeping stores and clothing dry, a Nikonos camera, a lot of books, a portable typewriter. (We even packed a 5x7-foot plastic water bed — for nightly comfort at those most ideal camps where we hoped to stay for months.)

After filling three duffel bags with food and spices, and somehow loading all this, and more, into the canoe (Manatee}, we snapped on the full cover, tied the craft astern the Hobie Cat (Kohoutek), climbed aboard, and were Bahama bound.

Now we cruise effortlessly along at 5 knots, find those far-out uncharted and uninhabited shores, sail our boats over reef and sandbars with only two inches of water, carry and roll our boats onto the beach, make camp, and live off the sea and land indefinitely. On the days we go to hunt or play at sea, we have a choice of boats. For returning with heavy load (like transporting friends and their gear), we sail Manatee. And when we want to make a fast trip — to town for mail or to the reef for supper — Kohoutek will clip along at 10 knots. When we cruise to a new camp, we sail Kohoutek while Manatee tows along behind packed with our increasingly elaborate comforts. And when we feel like venturing forth alone, there’s a boat for each of us.

During the two years nomading around this coral sea, life hasn’t always been quite as easy as now. For maintaining a steady course, sailing canoes rely on leeboards, which have yet to be made to hold up at sea. It took several dangerous failures during six months of testing before we came up with a dependable design. While carelessly diving and swimming, even wading, we have been attacked by sharks. Usually they scare away before we do. And though we draw but two inches of water, we have put holes in the hulls on shallow coral. (The boats are easily repaired with a field kit.)

If we get bored with a reef, or disappointed by poor hunting, we resharpen our appreciation by diving with the Nikonos camera or just eager eyes. If we risk the delicate balance of life, death, and rebirth on these fragile cays and seas, we move our camp to an unexploited area. Most often, we move because we like to move. So it was we found ourselves cruising southward in the l00-mi1e lee of Eleuthera.

We knew we were getting into some unique diving when we beached on the lee side of South East Point and climbed the high, weather-whitened coral cliffs to the lighthouse to see what was on the other side before sailing our boats around to the windward shore. We looked down over a wide, unending reef, lining an unvisited beach that stretched beyond sight. Breeze-ruffled palms and pines patched the dunes behind the shoreline, and picture-postcard clouds moved toward us from infinity. We had to sit and catch our breath. We had never seen the underwater world so clearly from so far above. Ranges of reef, ranges of water, ranges of cloud All way out there — in full color and stereophonic sound — and we were in it!

In another hour we’d brought Manatee and Kohoutek around and were sailing over the very same scene toward campsite behind the dunes amongst a mixed stand of casuarina and coconut palms. For weeks we swam from the beach. And the boats returned from the reef, always from a new event, a new encounter with some heart-thumping vision. And with a mixed catch — usually rockfish, grouper, lobster.

Then one clear day, without reason, our eyes lifted to the horizon and there was the speck of land. An uninhabited island, the charts said, called “Little San Salvador,” reportedly too dangerous to attract diving and fishing boats. A place worth exploring!