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A symbiotic bonding of islands and boats

My first tropical island was in the southern Chesapeake Bay. Maybe it wasn’t tropical to my geography teacher, but it was to me. There were white beaches, a lagoon, little island trees, a tall white lighthouse and, best of all, no other people. I’d go there in my 18-foot skiff with the homemade plywood cabin and hang out for days — willfully alone on my deserted island.

Tom has explored islands from the Chesapeake to the Bahamas and beyond.

When I met Mel, who is now my wife, I took her there. My boat was still 18 feet, but she was a Glasspar Seafair Sedan. We walked the beaches, swam in the warm waters, watched the rays and the horseshoe crabs that congregated there and even climbed to the top of the lighthouse. The ospreys didn’t like it, but we did. When our babies came, Melanie and Carolyn, we took them there. They loved the clear shallows just off the beach, the warm sand and the “fishies” you could see in the clear waters. It was there that my mind created our special song:

Run Run Run

Run Run Run

Run Run Run in the Hot Hot Sun

Fun for You and Fun for Me

As We Run by the Bright Blue Sea

Their little legs would pump to the rhythm, their laughing faces looking up as we all sang and ran along the beach together, holding hands. As time went on we sang it on many more island beaches. We headed down the coast, Bahamas-bound. But first came a stop at Cumberland Island, southernmost of the Georgia barrier islands. Much of it was a wilderness preserve, and we walked in the deep tunnel passages under the towering live oaks and saw deer, wild horses, armadillos and so much more. We ran along the beach with no other people in sight. We’d dinghy in from our anchorage when the morning light was just filtering over the ocean and walk the paths as the sweet-smelling mist rose to the tops of the trees. No one else was there. But the still lovely ruins of the mansion at Dungeness told us, on each visit, that things change, no matter how grand they are at the time you may be there.

Then came the Bahamas. They are a nation of islands — big and small, settled and deserted. Once a Bahamian told me, with a wide smile, “We have some islands in our ocean.” On many of the islands, old stone fences and the foundations of tiny houses bear witness to the loyalists who fled after the American Revolution, hoping to start anew on their own islands. But they were thwarted by the bugs, the poor soil, the stifling heat of summer, the hurricanes, the pirates, and the overwhelming lassitude that haunts so many tropical islands.

But we loved those islands. We explored their interior labyrinths, ran on their beaches, kayaked through the mazes of water paths in their mangrove swamps, and dove for fish and conch and lobster. We’d carefully work our way through the reef and find perfect harbors off perfect islands and then stay for a long time, going out by dinghy for supplies and fuel. We were often the only boat there, the only people there.

Early on, Tom would take his Glasspar Seafair Sedan to an island in the southern Chesapeake.

He would climb to the top of the lighthouse for a good view of his boat and the surrounding scene.

We loved all of the Bahamas islands we visited. On one particular island, we met an elderly couple. They’d sailed and traveled all over the world. They loved beaches and the sea, and had been to many. They’d found this island and quickly concluded it had the most wonderful beach in the world. We all became friends. They were much older than us and needed company and, at times, help. They invited us to stay at their island whenever we wanted. We did. Often. Not only was it beautiful, but it also was a warm and friendly place, and we all still remember it as one of the very good parts of our lives.

Not only was that island very special, but it also provided us a base to explore the many nearby islands, each special in its own way. We ranged the area and these islands with our dinghy. The surrounding waters and views were so beautiful. When we would leave that island, we’d visit others all around the Bahamas, spending 19 winters there. Almost anywhere we went we found many small islands, uninhabited except for the sand crab, the curly tailed lizard, the iguana, the snakes and the birds. Their white beaches with a trace of pink had no human footprints but ours. Deep brush protected the interiors, but we would sometimes penetrate it to explore, machete in hand.

Island chains

I’ve always loved island chains and archipelagos. One of our favorites has been the Exumas in the central Bahamas. To the west is the vast sea of the Bahamas Banks, where you can see the fan coral, sharks and fish as you ghost through the shallow waters, ever mindful of the colors that warn you of reef, grass, sand and shoal. To the east is the deep and sometimes treacherous Exuma Sound. It’s essentially a part of the ocean, trapped between the Exuma chain on its west and the long islands of Cat and, yes, Long Island to the east. It’s sometimes treacherous because once a nor’easter roars in, or most other strong easterly winds, the waves rage in all of the inlets, and if you’re caught out you can’t get into the inlets to seek shelter. But if you’ve listened to the weather and found a safe harbor in the Exumas, you can ride out a lot of storms — unless your safe harbor is full of other boats, as is too often the case today. We rode out the March 1993 “storm of the century” in one such harbor.

A chain of islands develops its own personality. The Exumas were no exception, with the few villages and one “town” spread throughout. Before the days of cellphones, the islanders talked to one another — home to home and island to island — by VHF radio. Most everyone had a VHF. It was a great party line. And if the conversation began at one far end, intended for someone out of range at the other far end, there were always good folks ready and willing to relay it, often adding their two cents’ worth. It was like drumbeats bearing messages. When a much loved island manager on one of the northernmost islands passed away, word traveled by VHF down the chain, as people in homes cried out and wailed their lament, remembering the good things and the good times about the good man. It was an island moment I won’t forget.

But there are also good times, such as the pig roasts and special nights at island bars, usually advertised over VHF radio. When the anchorages are full and the easterlies are blowing hard, “Nobody move, nobody get hurt.” The boats hang tight, but their crews become anxious to go ashore in their dinghies, scooting along under the lee of the western shore. The villagers don’t miss the chance to bring them to this, that or the other bar or restaurant or community “fundraising” event: “Come one, come all. Hamburgers on the beach. You can pickle it, you can lettuce it, you can mustard it, you can eat it. And all proceeds go to the church.”

The Bahamas aren’t the only place with islands. On the East Coast, we love to anchor behind St. Catherines Island, another in the Georgia barrier group. Here marsh lines one side of Walburg Creek, deep woods the other. Strange animal sounds and exotic bird calls roll out over the river. At times it sounds like an old Tarzan movie. There was a special preserve, and the creatures sounded as if they loved it.

We sailed around the British Virgin Islands, but it had already been explored, and anchorages were full of moorings. To us, it was crowded — like a Disneyland archipelago. I went to Catalina Island off California several times. For many people there, it was the only really practical destination. And you could tell. All seemed organized and planned, from the moorings, which you were expected to use, to the launches, designated landing spots and concessions. It was not our kind of island.

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We visited Block Island, R.I., and walked as tourists looking at the “quaint village,” somewhat like many of those where Mel and I had grown up. We stayed for a while at Nantucket, Mass., which was finely civilized but still rich in seafaring flavor. You can go to beaches there, seemingly rising alone from the sea, and be reminded of the Bahamas so far to the south — not that this island, in its very special way, isn’t also beautiful. But not all islands have wonderful personalities.

Sinister islands

Islands seem to develop personalities. Our favorite island, the one on which our older friends lived, had a warm, good personality, but literature is full of mysterious, sinister islands. Usually these have to do with pirate tales and cannibalism and voodoo. Some are subtler.

Etched forever in my memory of islands will be the mysteriously sinister free-floating island in “The Life of Pi.” You might think the very concept of a free-floating island is fiction, but it isn’t. We’ve seen them, islands of floating vegetation, and I’ve always felt they were to be avoided, even if they were firm enough to land on. Pi, arriving, of course, by boat — a distressed lifeboat — thought he’d found paradise, but it turned into a flesh-eating terror during the night. My old friend Steve Callahan served as a consultant for the film. Steve wrote “Adrift” about his experience drifting on a life raft — his own hellish island — for 72 days. No wonder the movie was good.

But there’s an island perhaps even more sinister, and this island is real — or perhaps “surreal” would be better. It comes, and it goes. It’s in a narrow portion of the English Channel, roughly between Kent and Calais. Currents rip back and forth between England and the European mainland, and seas can be ferocious. Many have found this low-lying island — the Goodwin Sands.

Perhaps more aptly called a shoal, it is approximately 10 miles long, ever shifting and at times appearing as solid land, well above sea level. People have visited as tourists. For a while, a yearly cricket match was held there at low tide. This ended in 2003, but in 2006 a film crew doing a documentary about the event had to be rescued.

People who have walked the sands describe them as quite firm and seemingly solid while the tide is low. But the “island” begins to come alive as the tide returns, they say, starting to move, forming puddles and rifts, becoming mushy and sucking. They say you can even hear the roar of the waters moving through the sands (see “The Wreckers,” by Bella Bathurst). Some believe this used to be a “permanent” island that belonged to an English earl named Godwin. Romans referred to a low-lying island in the area, and there’s legend of an island there named Lomea.

There have been four lightships stationed at strategic positions to guard it; one was lost in a storm, with its crew. More than 1,000 shipwrecks have been reported, but we can be sure the actual count is much more. In the Great Storm of 1703 it’s reported that at least 13 men-of-war ships and 40 merchant vessels were lost, as well as 2,168 lives and 708 guns.

The 1,000-ton Ogle Castle disappeared there in about an hour in the 19th century. And there was the German submarine that was chased onto the Sands. Its crew, to their good fortune, surrendered. The Sands swallowed the U-boat whole, and had they been aboard they, too, would have been swallowed. From time to time, this submarine has reappeared, and then, with another shift of tides or storm, the Sands swallows her again.

Lovely islands are sometimes made sinister by the people who come to them. We visited one that, we were told, had been taken over and turned into a fortress of sorts to support a drug-smuggling distribution center. The inhabitants had been forced off — some of them, we were told, at gunpoint. We first came to the island a few years after the government had routed the bad people and put their leader in jail. It was eerie. We saw a plane, half-submerged, as we motored into the anchorage. Bullet holes riddled its body. We were told it was a former drug plane that had a bad landing. As we walked ashore, we saw large-caliber bullet holes in building walls and in car and truck bodies. Extensive dog pens still smelled of the animals that had been kept there, not as pets but as weapons.

We were trapped there for about two weeks. The main harbor was not ideal in bad weather. A strong cold front was roaring in from the northwest, and it forced us into a harbor protected by a very shallow bar. We had to go there to be safe, but we also had to enter on a full moon tide. We then had to wait, in an almost land-locked lagoon, until the new moon bought us enough water to get out. The surrealistic blend of evil and beauty hung with us far after we left, and we can still feel it today, although we know that this island has healed itself and that the good people who have returned to it love it dearly.

Boats and islands

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Most of my life I’ve been visiting and loving islands. Most of my life I’ve owned and loved boats. My island visits almost always have been by boat. I know boats, and I know the sea. Boats and islands go together like hand and glove. There are islands everywhere — at least in all of the “everywheres” that are important to me. With a boat, I know I can probably reach them if I wish. But despite the songs and the lore, islands aren’t always the idyllic places we romanticize them to be.

Islands in the southern latitudes, which are where I hang out, have mosquitoes and flies. They also have “noseeums,” their itching bites vicious beyond imagination. They have snakes — some bad, most good, but still snakes. They have poison wood trees, about a jillion times worse, in my opinion, than poison ivy. You brush against one, and you itch and ooze seemingly forever. You innocently stand under one in a rain shower, and you soon wish you were in the great beyond with a bottle of strong rum.

The big iguanas and the wild pigs may bite you. Palm leaves can cut you as you walk past. And if you sleep on the soft, white sand, you wake up with sand in places where you’d just as soon not have sand. Yes, you can build a house, but it’s very expensive on most islands — first to buy the land and then to get the materials and labor there and then to maintain it all. Islands aren’t necessarily as perfect as the songs would have you believe.

A boat is an island, but it has few island problems. It can be your very own island. All of the other islands can be overrun by other people — some good, some bad. The only way you can keep them off is to buy the island. And even if you buy an island, the government of the moment can take it away from you, especially in Third World countries where many of the best islands seem to be.

But your boat is your very own. In some ways a boat is better than an island. If the bad people come or if you want a change of ocean, you can move your entire island — sail away to another sea. Your boat also moves on its own, at anchor, always telling you of the pulse of the sea and always telling you of the weather. If your island moves, you’ve got plenty trouble, mon, plenty trouble.

And unlike Pi’s mysterious island, you know your boat, and there are no horrible secrets there. You can keep the creatures at bay. Screens, cockroach hotels, spray and anchoring far off and upwind of shore are easy tactics to keep the bugs away. And iguanas don’t swim. Some of the snakes do, and they can slither up your anchor chain, but the likelihood of them invading your island is remote. One did invade my boat one day, but that’s another story.

And you can control where your boat goes, assuming Mother Ocean lets you. You care for it; it cares for you. You can make water on your boat with a watermaker. You can cook fine meals and watch television (if you want) and write, as I do. You can take a shower and go to sleep at night on clean sheets and with screens that keep the bugs where they belong. You can live on your island, with all the comforts of a civilized home. But in the night you feel her rigging whisper to you, as do the palms ashore. You feel her swing on the tide. You go on deck and look around, and you know you’ve got an island.

Like some islands, boats can be bad. I’ve often thought of Steve Callahan’s life raft, how it must have seemed like a cruel island all those 72 days. But it brought him through. There are many good things about having your boat as an island. I can tell you of many bloodletting “adventures” my boats have thrown my way. I’ve written about many of them. I also know that my island can sink, but then I remember that so can the other islands.

Islands and boats aren’t forever

Island solitude in the harbor at North Bimini

The birth of islands has always fascinated me. They seem to like to come in groups, which is why we have so many archipelagos. Some begin cataclysmically when the bottom of the sea erupts in a volcano with burps of gas so huge they can swallow ships and lava boiling the water as it breaches the earth’s crust. Those born of volcanoes include the BVIs and the Hawaiian islands. Some form when massive plates of the ocean floor buckle and fold over one another, mounting to the top as mountains, such as Iceland and the Azores.

Some form slowly over the millennia as tiny shells and sea life slowly drift to the bottom, settling in ever-building shelves of calcium carbonate. This would be much of the Bahamas. Some allow themselves to be carved from the mainland by glaciers, streams and rivers, and storms. These include New York’s Long Island and the Chesapeake’s Tangier and Smith Islands.

Some are formed by strong rivers running for many years over the continents and depositing soil — sometimes the continent’s best — at the ocean’s edge as if a gift to their mother-god. These include the deltas off Louisiana. Still others are formed from the building blocks of coral, leaving the shells of their lives as eternal monuments in the sea. Some are created when plant life lodges in a shallow area and collects other life and sand and soil, ever building.

The birth of boats fascinates me, too, but we can build them to our own likings and to our own schedules. And having built them, we know what they are (we hope). But we also know that their lives are finite.

Islands die, too, sometimes in one storm or cataclysmic upheaval, sometimes slowly over the centuries. Most times it’s at the hand of nature, sometimes by the hand of man. Many of my boats have gone, too. Not the fiberglass ones, I’m sure, except maybe our beloved 47-foot Gulfstar, which was creamed in back-to-back hurricanes a few years after we sold her. But all of my many early boats were wood. Rot took them one by one, beginning the day they were born. But it’s easier to get another boat than another island. I don’t think of boats and islands the same way when it comes to birth and death.

But islands and the boats that take us to them do change. Sometimes this isn’t good; sometimes it is. Our elderly friends had to leave their island. People began traveling to those waters in droves, and celebrities and other wealthy people began buying our favorite islands, making them private, building huge homes, posting “keep off” signs on the beaches and filling anchorages with docks. They have the right, I suppose, but to us it’s sometimes been like the desecration of a church.

My first island hasn’t sunk beneath the waters yet, but it isn’t an island anymore, which may be just as bad. The lagoon where I used to anchor filled with sand in a storm, and the island became an extension of the mainland. The beaches are still there, but they’re often filled with people — so many people. And the strong tides have scoured out the shallows to the east. I used to wade to the lighthouse over those shallows. I can’t do this anymore without getting washed away. But another storm may reopen the passage so I can take my old 20-foot Mako in and anchor again in a protected lagoon. The spit of land may become an island again.

Such is the nature of islands, the sea and boats. I still see the lighthouse as I head down the Bay in Chez Nous, my own special island. It reminds me not only of the island of my youth but also of so many others. There will always be special islands out there waiting for you and me. And today we’ll sing “Run Run Run, Run Run Run,” and short little legs will pump to the rhythm, laughing faces looking up as we run, holding hands with our grandchildren on another island beach.

The Neale children hit the island beaches as soon as they were able to walk. These days Tom and Mel run along those island beaches holding hands with their grandchildren.

July 2013 issue