Down the way where the nights are gay and the sun shines daily on the mountaintop, I took a trip on a sailing ship and when I reached Jamaica I made a stop…
Somewhere in the depths of the Gulf Stream I woke to the sounds of ocean splashing against hull and Harry Belafonte’s Jamaica Farewell wearily playing on my boyfriend’s vintage tape player in the cockpit. I groggily followed the music up through the companionway into the warm Caribbean night and wondered if I was still dreaming. The wake of our 24-foot sailboat was sparkling like a path of fairy dust in the water. The song gently played as the blue green lights of the ocean phosphorescence trailed behind us into the night.
Far from firm ground, this was my first ocean-going sailing trip. We’d set out from the Florida Keys at sunset hoping to reach the outer Bahamian Islands by day break. Andros, the largest and least visited of the Bahamian chain would be our mooring ground.
We reached Gun Cay just before sunrise and under the light of day continued on across the Great Bahama Bank, a submerged carbonate platform of limestone that pretty much is the Bahamian archipelago. This large and wide shoal is often less than 10 meters in depth. It stretches out from Andros’ west shoreline creating pristine fishing flats known the world over by fly fisherman in search of bonefish and tarpon. My turn at the helm, I sat perched in the cockpit, eyes shifting from compass to horizon to sea. The shallow bank spread out across forever with Caribbean aqua water so clear I could see starfish resting on the bottom as if they were only an arm’s length away.
The land mass of Andros rose higher on the horizon as we approached its northern tip. And then the nose of our boat dangled over bottomless indigo-blue waters while the boat’s aft seemingly teetered over the shallow shelf of the Great Bahama Bank. My eyes played tricks on me and my stomach felt the slight effects of vertigo as we floated over an abrupt 6000 foot drop-off. Known as the Tongue of the Ocean, this dramatic cliff plunges to depths as low as 4000 meters. That’s about 2.5 miles!
The Tongue of the Ocean, rimmed by the third largest barrier reef in the world, makes Andros a haven for serious divers. The Andros Barrier Reef stretches 140 miles along the eastern side of the island beckoning scuba adventurers to one of the least explored reefs in the western hemisphere. Even more intriguing to divers are the mysterious blue holes or underwater sink holes of Andros. The Great Bahama Bank was dry land in previous ice ages, when the exposed limestone underwent chemical weathering creating caves and sinkholes. Now submarine terrain, when seen from above, the deep round caves look like dark blue holes in the clear aquamarine waters. The blue holes of Andros have provided some of the deepest underwater cave explorations in the world.
But I’m not a diver and I suffer from claustrophobia so underwater caves were not the attraction for me. What left a deeper impression on me then, and what later attracted me back to Andros for several other Caribbean holidays, was the unadulterated authenticity of life and nature on the island. Despite the natural beauty of the place, there are no large resorts to speak of, only a slim number of fishing and eco-lodges catering to travelers. This fact, along with the pristine subtropical forests that are home to some 40 odd species of wild orchids, is what made Andros most alluring to me.
The expansive wilderness of Andros is also alluring to scientists and conservationists. The Nature Conservancy describes just a portion of the biodiversity to be found on the island:
Hardwood forests abutting expanses of freshwater marshes and globally imperiled pine rockland are prime habitat for migratory songbirds such as the Kirtland’s warbler, one of North America’s rarest birds. Giant land crabs, the Bahamian woodstar hummingbird, the West Indian whistling-duck and the Northern Bahamian rock iguana, listed as threatened with extinction, can all be found on the island.
High school and university students study the rich environment of Andros at the Forefar Field Station in Stafford Creek. With an intern program, the educational station is a good place to stay for extended exploration and study of the island’s resources.
Economically speaking, fishing and farming remain the staple activities for this great provider island. Perhaps one of my favorite visits was to the resident Mennonite farm famous for its fresh honey. Not only do they keep bees, orchards and vegetable fields, but they run a carpentry and automobile shop where every islander in the know takes their car in for repairs.
The abundance of fresh ground water has also made Andros an important part of the Bahamian economy. The fresh water of Andros reaches the main Bahamian Island of New Providence and its capital of Nassau not only by way of the produce grown on Andros, but directly from barges that haul five million gallons of potable water there daily. Watching the water barges leaving and returning from Morgan’s Bluff on North Andros makes you feel blessed to be far from the crowds drinking it all up.
But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Andros is its strong tradition of fine craft. The remote Red Bays community on the Western side of the isle is famous for its straw basketry and woodcarving. The Androsia Batik Factory near Fresh Creek in Central Andros is where the typically bright Caribbean colored fabrics with batiked motifs are made.
But what personally captured my reverence is the long tradition of wooden boat building on the island. I spoke with some of the last living keepers of the craft and I came away with a deep respect for the art, function and way of life these slender wooden boats represent. Sailing homeward I imagined a life driven by a Bahamian Smack, the name for these brightly painted sailboats. Moving toward the hustle of South Florida, I longed for a life at that pace.
…But I’m sad to say, I’m on my way. Won’t be back for many a day. My heart is down my head is turning around, I had to leave a little girl in Kingston town…
So the song goes.