Island Time - Recreating suburbia in a Bahamian harbor

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Vagabond cruiser revisits Exuma Island port and finds the place much as he left it

Vagabond cruiser revisits Exuma Island port and finds the place much as he left it

This time, nobody tipped off Bahamian authorities that a cruising wife was illegally selling haircuts on Volleyball Beach. During my first stay in George Town on Great Exuma Island, that act of snitching led to the slashing of the informant’s inflatable. That was in 1999, and there was other bad behavior as well.

George Town marked the beginning of the realization that I and the New England sailors with whom I once associated would always be outsiders in a “cruising community” defined by the aggressively “retired” men and women who settle this enormous Bahamian harbor, then proceed to compete against and relentlessly socialize with one another all winter.

Given the opportunity to live close to nature, they fall back on the familiar.

I guess you might say I’m a snob in the sense that I feel more at home with the crustier Americans and the many cruisers from far off places who, like me, prefer to cruise with nobody but my own small crew. But here I am in George Town again.

If you’ve never sailed south, a few words of explanation are in order. George Town is a Bahamian settlement that is transformed by hundreds of cruisers who generally begin arriving there in December then clear out by April. This year more than 400 boats were anchored there at the peak and, I regret to say, there was probably room for 400 more. Once on site, these folks proceed to recreate an American suburb just like the one they claimed they were trying to escape — except with greater intensity.

Organized activities include volleyball, tennis, bridge, golf and boccie tournaments, softball, lessons in yoga and watercolors, excursions, sailing regattas, a variety show and beach church. (More about the beach church later.) The glue that binds this hyperactivity is the morning “Net” on the VHF radio.

The Net comes on at 8:10 a.m. on Channel 72, under the direction of a volunteer controller who lines up callers to recite their information in an organized sequence, beginning with a weather report. Bahamian business people advertise their restaurants and cab services, event organizers exhort others to volunteer their time, people with broken equipment plead for free help from their more knowledgeable fellows. (The latter seems to be just another form of socializing since with modern communications, they could just as easily get professional advice from the manufacturers of the equipment rather than guesses from other retirees.)

If you wonder what happened to the people in your high school who ran for class president or aspired to lead the Spirit Squad or the Key Club, tune to 72 at 8:10. Witness, too, examples of those singular trusted high-schoolers who got themselves deputized as junior custodians and patrolled the halls with a ring of schoolhouse keys, then grew up to become local police chiefs. And what would a Canado/American suburb do without law enforcement?

The cruiser police at George Town can’t stop real bad behavior like dinghy slashing, but they probably would applaud (over the morning Net, of course) the person who ratted out the illicit hair-cutter. The real problem for the enforcers is that the “cruising community” at George Town, unlike the suburbs that spawned it, totally lacks even a subversive element, let alone a criminal one. Here the offenses are anchoring in the channel, failing to display anchor lights at night, leaving used motor oil at the supermarket dumpster and, most heinous, failure to heed George Town’s peculiar radio protocols.

One of the aspects of George Town life is the constant and useless radio chatter, with these former accountants, stock brokers, office managers and housewives all speaking quite officially to one another like so many fighter-pilots, constantly roger-ing this, that and the other thing, when a simple “okey doke” would suffice. One’s ability to speak normal English on the VHF is an important clue about that person’s self-confidence as a mariner, I think.

“Serenity, Serenity, Serenity. This is Serendipity. Freebird, Freebird, Freebird: Hey Jude.”

There is a common sense, though entirely unofficial, practice in George Town of using Channel 68 as a hailing frequency for the mundane, leaving 16 for emergencies and to the local Bahamians who happily disregard all radio protocol when they see fit. Callers then switch to any channel that doesn’t already have chitchat in progress — no easy feat. To the rest of the world, however, 68 is a common ship-to-ship frequency.

Woe-be to those unsuspecting mariners passing through, unaware of the George Town Six-Eight Rule. When these ignorant innocents converse on 68, a hazing is sure to follow: A squadron of “Radio Police” promptly interrupt the conversation, barking out, “working channel, working channel” without explanation. If that cryptic phrase doesn’t force the talkers to go elsewhere, the RPs begin keying their mikes to “step on” and ruin their communication. That’ll show ’em.

Maybe this radio stuff just bothers me because I’m by nature a contrarian curmudgeon from Cape Cod. Or maybe I just don’t understand blending the supposed laid-back cruising lifestyle with a rigid adherence to rules.

The Island Time approach would be laissez faire. Who cares if, for an entire minute or two, George Town harbor were forced to endure illicit conversation on “our hailing frequency?” I fully expect the offending parties would soon learn about local radio procedures.

No laissez faire, say the RPs, who are actually broadening their franchise. Reports have it that the RPs are now trying to enforce their 68 protocol at other harbors in the Bahamas, unmindful of the fact that these islands have a government perfectly capable of issuing its own radio regs.

Indeed, most of the bad behavior this year was on the VHF, which I guess is an improvement over 1999.

Beach church organizers exhorted the faithful to try to break a George Town record by turning out 200 people to prayers in the sand. The call to prayer made its number, but also prompted a parody, also heard over the Net, from the followers of Bacchus. They proclaimed that Alcohol Appreciation Day, beginning at 4 p.m. on Hamburger Beach, would also be seeking to exceed all previous attendance numbers and, in a snide postscript, noted that AA was the one group using the beach that truly “welcomed everyone regardless of race, creed or color.”

(Some of the Bacchanalian hostility to the Beach Churchers may have originated from the previous season when a “Children’s Day” hosted by the Churchers was said to have included an unexpected degree of religious content; this made some parents angry and consequently ill will spread.)

In other radio nastiness, Net control this year genuflected to inclusivity by having select announcements translated into French for the growing minority of Quebecois cruisers anchoring at George Town (despite the fact that nearly all the Quebecois I’ve met along the way understood English thoroughly and weren’t half bad at speaking it, either). Maybe because the translations made for a longer Net, but I suspect it was actually residual hard feelings from the language wars of Canada: Whenever the Quebecois fellow came on to translate, some bad person keyed his mike, stepping on his entire transmission. This went on for days. Then the Net controller used a threat right out of high school. Mr. Quebecois would repeat his translation all day long if necessary until it was heard by everyone. The keying finally stopped.

To this relentlessly negative picture of George Town, let me inject a smidgeon of balance. While the “commodification” of the Caribbean gets under my skin, all that organization is great for cruisers with kids, who must feel isolated much of the time being cooped up on a boat with just mom and dad. At George Town there are plenty of other kids, and fun events for kids are supervised by responsible third parties (i.e., babysitters).

And for the rest of us, the harbor continues to be a great stop on the “thornless path to windward” (reference: Bruce Van Sant’s book “The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward”), in part because of the service sector that has developed around the annual swarm of Type A (for affluent) cruisers. George Town has a great little library, an excellent little supermarket (with mail pickup), hardware stores, good restaurants and pleasant taverns. It’s got a boatyard with a 50-ton Travelift. On the opposite side of the harbor, Stocking Island is criss-crossed with trails that connect its many beautiful beaches like a nature park, also thanks to the cruisers.

I tend to keep a low profile while observing an anchorage, but if the cruisers in George Town knew me, they probably would be just as happy to see me sail off as I was to leave.

I guess I just need more elbow room. Call me a cranky old dinosaur. My advice to conscientious objectors like myself is that George Town is worth a few days — a week at most — but if you drop your hook between December and March, you might like the place better with your radio off.

’Til next time

Peter Swanson, 51, grew up on Cape Cod never wearing shoes in summer until he shipped off to college. Besides his journalism credentials, he holds a 50-ton Coast Guard master’s license. His ambition to cruise the coast of Cuba is so premature that he founded a Web site dedicated to this virtually non-existent pastime: www.cubacruising.net .