Cigarettes give you Scurvy


 June 2002 — text & photos by Austin Pick

I've just returned from a weeklong sailing adventure in the Bahamas. I'm not sure what sort of image this conjures in your mind: a submersion in postcard tropicalia, deserted beaches spanning mixed-drink ocean swirling in a coconut cup served on a platter by a monkey with funny hat — high-rise heatfoil balconied hotels swarming with glossed young bodies intoxicated by sex, sticky with alcohol and endlessly tanning — a color-coordinated harem of white-haired retirees, each compressed between satellite-dish sunhats & orthopedic shoes, smiling eyes pinched shut in sunlight snapping photos of lighthouses ceramic alligators and shiny island boys, saying how nice everything is — men standing at the helms of luxury yachts where business is the chief pleasure, making money make itself and smoking their cool millions cigars alongside bikinied trophy wives, gracefully aged, indulgent, deserving — young adventurers reclining under the orchestral skitch of wind-tousled palms and grand sunsets glancing reflected from emerald seas, licking whitesands and arcing thru the lines of ships moored silhouetted and cradling sailors to dreams of miles distant and uncountable anyways... and I don't know what sort of image 'the Bahamas' conjures in your mind, maybe a little of all this, more-or-less what I imagined before going and now continue to envision, although there is always more, a distinct... there is an essence there, an atmosphere too entirely enfolding for the discretion of words, which I've only glimpsed as if sticking my perceptual toes in the shallow end, really...

The Bahamas is a smattering of hundreds of islands scattered liberally between Florida and Cuba, many of them quietly inhabited and otherwise relatively untrammeled. There were no bare-skinned dance parties on this particular journey; for a short and exhausting week we sailed amongst a collection of relaxed islands called the Abacos, located about 175 miles east of Palm Beach, Florida. The Abacos' main islands and myriad cays cover approximately 650 square miles, and the world's third largest barrier reef system spans almost the entire length of the Abacos' cays. Together these reefs and islands create the Sea of Abaco, which is often said to be a sailing universe. Can vouch for that myself, in fact...

I managed a voyage in this remarkable corner of the earth thanks to none other than the Boy Scouts of America, which as one of their High Adventure programs maintains seven ships in the Bahamas. The first trick for me, however, was actually getting down there, which ridiculously required a 5 a.m. flight from Dulles. I couldn't have accomplished this without the abundant resourcefulness of Zach Livingston & Friends, with whom I kept an all-night wandering vigil in the suburbs of the Capitol... then two brief flights and before the end of the day I found myself on a sailboat anchored just off the coast of a tropical island, under a panorama of rearranged stars.

Ours was a 48-foot three-sailed ship, a beautiful craft built in 1960 by the Hinckley Company, named Water Music after one of Handel's compositions (which we awoke to every morning). We lived on her, cooking our meals in the tiny galley, and slept on the deck; we cleaned, ran rigging, dove for submerged moorings— and we sailed. Having read some Melville and Conrad, I had what I thought was some sense of what life at sea might be like, harnessing the powers of wind and wave with a tiny creaking contraption. And in my brief experience, I'd wager that life at sea is at once both as romantic and as hardscrabble as any book would have us believe. The sun is hotter, the salt seas more bitter and the boat more cramped at times than one is inclined to imagine, safely surveying the scene on the page of some thick volume or crisp postcard. And yet the islands are more wild, the reefs more vibrant and mysterious, the accompaniment of dolphins more inspiring, and the roll and spray of sailing thru howling storms more raucous and enlivening than one is inclined to imagine, either. And a weeklong voyage isn't more than a slim drop in the experience of oceans...

We were never out of sight of land for long. We sailed from island to island, going ashore to prowl about the lazy Bahamian towns, explore languid beaches, snorkel reefs, lounge poolside, drink sublime sunsets and bayonet the incredible heat with slurruped icecream. Unfortunately our crew, a group of Scouts from Virginia, wasn't for the most part nearly as adventurous as one would expect from a bunch of young lads smack dab in the middle of the Bahamas. I spent most of my time with roommate Doug and our friend Lee, exploring as a much as we possibly could.

The Water Music is a racing vessel, designed for long hauls and fully capable of sailing anywhere in the world. Under the wise and decisive leadership of our Captain we pushed the boat to a full speed of 9 miles an hour, which sounds sluggish but actually approaches flying on a sailboat. The Captain deserves his title; he upholds the revered tradition of the seaman with casual dynamism and masculine grace. He has a doctorate in music and teaches band at a middle school in Florida, spends half of his summers teaching young men to sail in the Bahamas, the other half traveling with his earnings. He's situated himself so as to allow the fulfillment of his greatest loves, teaching and adventuring, at home every minute he's aboard a vessel and moreso when she is wind-roaring over open waters. He is weathered, aged, yet spritely and amphibious, a fish that prefers to sail, a teacher whose dojo is a 48-foot yacht. And the Captain appears to be happy as a fuckin' clam.

What more should any of us ask, but the ability to create a fulfiling life for ourselves? Questions like this echo heavily in a place like the Abacos, a strange place, with a strange essence that I felt but don't fully understand. The Republic of the Bahamas is actually a third-world country, or maybe a second-world country, whatever that means. You'd never guess it because the Bahamas appears to be a playground for the rich and probably the famous too, where corporate barons keep private islands and vacation with their families. There is an uneasy balance between the rich visitors and the islanders who accommodate and serve them, a kind of economic gridlock defined —literally— in black and white. And yet the entire pace of life is so relaxed, so leisurely, so nonchalant, so wonderful, that it almost seems to harbor something deeper, unsettled and disquieting. Maybe all of life is like that when viewed in a particular way. We're told, however, that the inequalities of the Abacos are mild by comparison with the Bahamas of MTV. I think, perhaps, that the relaxed atmosphere, implicitly understood by natives as an important asset, is sometimes a little forced, deliberate. Then again, the natural rhythm of island life carries its own quality, and for the most part the Abaco Islands are rather pristine, a windswept wilderness, remote, precarious, yet almost entirely comfortable...

And then of course, there's this: we were docked in the harbor of a cay, so Doug, Lee & I went to sleep on the beach one night, happy for the chance to burn a few forbidden cigs, not welcome aboard. On our way we naturally stopped off at Nippers Beach Bar, which was fairly up and bumping for a quiet little island on like a Wednesday night. No matter where we went, we never heard any bad music in the Bahamas, and Nippers was no exception, a reggae oasis in the insect orchestra of the dunes. Anyways we'd just arrived at Nippers, and among the other folks are these two fellas chillin' on stools, oceanside. Suddenly a man in black appears and very quietly walks up and bear-hugs the two fellas, leaning his weight into them; a moment later he has them handcuffed together, and leads them into the night.

There is buzz and murmur at the bar, locals discussing police tactics on the islands and speculating about the two who'd just been nabbed. A couple of visiting preppy heads tell us that they'd bought some herb from these guys a few days back. Whatever, we order drinks and kick back, preoccupied by pina coladas, which we toasted to the music of the water. But not ten minutes later the officer and his partner return, leading the two handcuffed dealers by the arm. The cops seem to have returned under the pretense that there are drugs in the dune grass to be searched for, but they only scan with their flashlights for about a minute before giving up, then lead the two over to the bar, where the dealers proceed to pick up the food they'd ordered and been waiting for, before getting arrested. The cops brought them back so they could pick up their food! No way knowing who got to eat it, but that's the Bahamas for you, and its hard not to like a place like this, where police and pot-sellers are like character-actors in a social set piece, a dance on the sands...

An'on... After a week in what some call Paradise, I returned home to the family's digs in Maryland, then ducked up to Baltimore for a few days to catch up with my best hombre Jason, too-few days of psychedelic lampshade jazz lounge bohemian bar mitzvah. We catcalled the moon in her passing, suffered the humid womb of the City, drank potent draughts in cellar taverns, and boogied with bellydancers at a pimp minimalist uptown lounge. But that's another email all together...

Anyways, now off to Australia.

With Love, A

07.07.2002


"the orchestral skitch of wind-tousled palms"

"Doug, Lee & I" [photo by Doug Woodhouse]

"some idea what life at sea is like"

"a submersion in postcard tropicalia"
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