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Island Time - The evolution of ‘Little America’

Suburbanization rolls over the lower Abacos, wiping away the distinctive charm of the islands

Suburbanization rolls over the lower Abacos, wiping away the distinctive charm of the islands

Ahhh the Abacos! How I looked forward to my first voyage there: Little islands in an aquamarine sea, inhabited by a few honest folk. That was only 15 years ago. How I dreaded my most recent stay during the summer of 2006.

To be fair, the northern reaches of this 150-mile Bahamian archipelago are unchanged. Most are unpopulated and visited only by native fishermen and cruisers who enjoy solitude. Double Breasted Cay with its multiple anchorages has an exquisitely remote feel, while Grand Cays with its friendly settlement is just a skiff ride away.

But my ketch-rigged MorganOutIsland 41, Rio, was headquartered at MarshHarbour on Great Abaco to mind a charter boat there. Marsh is the commercial and political capital of the Abacos and, while we could come and go, charter responsibilities kept us within a 20-mile radius of the “Hub of Abaco.”

For mariners, Marsh has always been regarded less for its beauty than for its airport with daily U.S. flights and well-stocked markets. The nearby islands were the real cruising destination. Not so much anymore, to my mind. An explosion of home building, both individual lots and big developments, has turned these parts into a suburb of Palm Beach. No wonder Bahamians call the Abacos “Little America.”

The next Abacos domino to fall will be BakersBay, a lovely anchorage on Great Guana Cay, boasting a pristine sandy white beach. After Bahamian courts ruled against locals opposed to the development, work resumed late last year on a new $500 million marina and golf community there. Besides 356 home sites and a 180-slip marina, with room for vessels greater than 200 feet, the project includes a marina village worthy of Disney.

According to the developer, “This small, lively commercial district patterned after the old Caribbean sea ports of the 1700s will offer waterfront dining, an energetic public marina bar, a general store where residents and members can purchase basic food items or sundries, a luxury inn with villa-style accommodations to serve members and guests, and an authentic Bahamian farmer’s market, all connected by pedestrian pathways and boardwalks.”

Another legendary little anchorage is Little Harbour, at the southern extreme of the Sea of Abaco. Its history reads like the novel “Mosquito Coast” (Harrison Ford starred in the movie) but with a happier ending. Fleeing civilization more than 50 years ago, sculptor Randolph Johnson and family set up shop on the lush, tropical shores of this tiny anchorage. It’s still worth a visit, but it has become what I consider Little Harbour Inc. Randolph’s son, Peter Johnson, also a sculptor, maintains an upscale gallery with the world famous Pete’s Pub next door. The neighborhood now contains about 40 homes, several overlooking the anchorage. Another enormous seaside golf and villa complex has sprung up a few miles away.

Hopetown, on Elbow Cay, with its candy-cane lighthouse still holds some charm, but the little cottages that were once homes for Bahamians are all on an upscale rental market. Where did the townspeople all go? Meanwhile, a daily ferry from Great Abaco brings platoons of Haitian immigrants to build second homes for Americans.

Haitians are to the Abacos what low-wage Mexican labor is to the States, except I believe we treat the Mexicans better. Many Bahamians hold Haitians in low esteem, in part it seems, because Haitian skin is darker than a typical Bahamian’s and many blame the Haitian migrants for a rising crime rate.

Unless a cruiser falls victim to assault or robbery, most of the urban trends are either invisible to outsiders or too incremental to notice during a short stay. In our free time we snorkeled on several shallow reefs, gathered shells and spent a day or two exploring each of the nearby cays. In my opinion, the lower Abacos are a great place to spend a week, but three weeks is too long.

Rio and crew, however, were there for three solid months. As an antidote for the cabin fever of living aboard at Marsh, Kelly painted pictures of sea turtles, which were plentiful, despite still being hunted as food.

Despite the growing similarities to Florida, many cruisers become enthralled with the lower Abacos; some boats hung around the entire time we were there. If I may be permitted to paint with a broad brush, I think what distinguishes this group from cruisers farther down-island can be summed up in two words: pub crawl. The build-up of the Abacos has boosted the booze trade tremendously (except for industrious and Christian Man-of-War Cay, which long ago declared that boatbuilding and demon rum don’t mix; no liquor is sold there; no beer either.)

Regatta Time in the Abacos institutionalizes the pub crawl as the July race venue moves from island to island. I’ve mentioned Pete’s Pub, but the real Abacos cash cow has to be Nippers on Great Guana — a rum punch venue with an ocean view and multilevel lounging pools. Add a little Jimmy Buffet and this is what escaping to the islands is all about, right?

What’s the frequency?

During the Great Guana regatta, the racers were in such a hurry to hit the saloons that some anchored in FishersBay apparently hadn’t ensured their hooks were well set. Their punishment came in the form of a 40-knot squall, which thundered through as they were partying and set the fleet a draggin’. Mayhem ensued. Several boats ended up aground. This impressive squall had only diminished slightly when it hit us at Marsh some minutes later.

The morning VHF radio “Net” had probably warned of the possibility of squalls that day. The Net is one of those curious cruising institutions that has endured in the lower Abacos for many years. Unlike the George Town cruisers Net, the Abacos Net is a permanent institution maintained over the years by Bob and Patty Toler.

“Barometer Bob” is the weather guru and Patty is the MC for the daily report, which incorporates call-ins by cruisers and local businesspeople. It begins with the weather and call-ins reporting the conditions at the various passes between the Sea of Abaco and the North Atlantic. The business people are usually restaurateurs from neighboring cays calling in to announce daily specials and events. A great deal of useful information is broadcast for the benefit of newly arrived cruisers, and then there are the usual exhortations to use anchor lights at night, be kind to the coral reefs, and so on.

The Net finishes with a trivia question usually posed by an ex-pat friend of the Tolers (who, by the way, live on land at MarshHarbour). I am usually a conscientious objector when it comes to Net participation; I listen but rarely speak. But one morning I couldn’t help myself. My longstanding interest in cruising Cuba had led to an interest in author Ernest Hemingway, who practically invented the pastime during his three decades on the island. I listened carefully that day because Hemingway was the topic for the trivia question.

“What was the name of Hemingway’s boat and what inspired that name?” was the two-pronged question. A few callers had the name right — Pilar. One caller claimed the boat was named after a leading character in Hemingway’s novel of the Spanish Civil War, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” To my surprise, the Trivia Guru agreed.

“Break, break,” I said into the mike.

“Is this an emergency?” MC Toler asked, sounding annoyed.

“Why no,” I said, wondering what this emergency stuff was all about. As far as I knew, “break break” is the standard radio phrase for someone wanting to butt in to a conversation. “I just want to dispute the trivia answer,” I replied, and proceeded to do so.

Hemingway had taken delivery of Pilar in 1932, I said, which was four years before the events described in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and eight years before the novel was written. He may have named Pilar in the novel after his boat, but the reverse was clearly impossible according to the timeline. My erudition was about as welcome as that Snickers bar in the swimming pool.

I later learned “break break” was a violation of peculiar Abacos radio etiquette. On a subsequent program, amid other daily exhortations to good behavior, Patty spelled it out. “In the Abacos, we follow SSB practice and refrain from using ‘break break’ except for an emergency.”

SSB practice? If you say so …

Which brings me to a painful subject: radio behavior in the MarshHarbour area. As in George Town, cruisers are obliged by tradition to avoid any conversation on channel 68, which is reserved as a second hailing frequency after 16. Problem is: Cruisers aren’t the only boaters in the lower Abacos, and sometimes during fishing tournaments they’re not even the majority. First, these sportfish guys don’t listen to the morning Net, and second, they tend to hail on 16 and then switch to 68 for talk, just like back in Florida.

All summer we listened to cruisers admonishing individual sportfishermen to take their blather to another channel. On one occasion, two fishing boats were talking on 68 as the helmsmen helped each other thread the coral reefs south of Man of War. A cruiser, clueless to the delicacy of the situation, got on the horn to admonish them.

That’s when I decided to write Patty Toler, who has parlayed her Cruisers Net into a position of influence in the Abacos, she being the VHF queen. With more and more boats using Abacos waters, maybe she could get the 68 situation clarified. In my message, I described the coral reef event.

Here’s some of what I also said:

I understand and agree with the reasons that Channel 68 is used as a second hailing frequency. However, there are so many short-term boaters who come to the area for events such as fishing tournaments that this convention has created a very unpleasant situation … the tone is often nasty even when it is not intended to be. What makes this so unseemly is that you have foreigners with no legal authority rebuking others for behavior that is technically legal, customary and proper.

Why don’t you folks, who have standing in the community and who apparently feel strongly about this issue, convince the authorities in Nassau to formally adopt Channel 68 as an alternate hailing frequency in the Abacos or even in the Bahamas at large? Once it becomes law, marine journalists would broadcast this information throughout the U.S. boating community, and then when a tournament comes to town, the participants would likely be educated about 68. Those who didn’t get the word could be told over the radio that 68 is a Bahamian hailing frequency by law, instead of it being a “custom” or “something we do in the Abacos.”

Let me know your thoughts on this.

I received this very nice reply from Bob and Patty Toler:

“I want to answer you promptly, but need time to think this one through ... so this is an interim answer.

“Your thoughtful commentary is provoking in that I’m just not sure that ‘government’ could or would do anything (they have only just formed the PUC-Public Utilities Corp.) to oversee radio business, and its infancy makes getting anything accomplished, well, time-consuming and difficult.

“On the other hand, the radio frequencies used are clearly defined in the cruising guides, and if the promoters of events would simply mention them (as most do) in their literature, the problem would be solved (except for the guys who can’t read).

“I will ask for some more time to bring this subject up with the ‘right’ people in authority, and see what can be accomplished ... and I will surely let you know!

“Thanks so much for taking the time to write so eloquently, rather than rant silently.”

Same old story: government incompetence and illiteracy among owners of million-dollar fishing boats. Next time you pass through the Abacos and feel the temptation to shut off your VHF for the duration, remember that your radio-challenged “Island Time” correspondent at least tried to get the matter sorted. Arrrrgh, the Abacos!

’Til next time.

Peter Swanson, 51, is sailing southern waters aboard his ketch-rigged Morgan Out Island 41. 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: