Discoveries on Eleuthera Island
The Apollo 15 astronauts looked out the window after takeoff and saw the spectacular Bahama Banks.
If they had been surfers, they would have squinted their eyes to see traces of whitewater along the reefs of
outer islands like Abaco, Eleuthera and Cat.
That’s exactly what I was doing now from the airplane window seat I grabbed ahead of my friends, Ed, Bill and Jerry.
We were fifteen years old and on our first surf adventure.
Two months ago the surfing bug bit me extra hard.
I paddled. The wave picked me up. The board rushed forward while I tentatively stood up.
I was hooked and planned to spend everyday forward having this much fun.
Then I heard, that there would be no more waves reaching South Florida until September. I knew that travel was going to be a necessary part of this new life.
I found a fishing chart and saw the Bahamas standing
between South Florida and an ocean full of potential swells.
For money, I taught myself to
build surfboards and sell them to my friends.
The first boards were heavy from the 8 lb. cloth I found
at the marine store. The next batch were better– made
from blanks, cloth, resin from the local board factory, Nomad Surfboards.
Mom drove me from school and waited in the lot of the industrial park, while I knocked on the door of Ron Heavyside’s shaping room. The scream of his power planer made knocking useless. I startled him from his concentration. He gave me a death-stare and took off his dust mask.
“Look kid, I don’t make any money, interrupting my work to pump resin into your plastic milk carton containers.”
I would beg and he would say “Ok that’s it! Two gallons of resin. Give me twenty dollars and beat it”
Thank you so much. I just need fifteen feet of six ounce cloth and a jar of that bright orange-yellow tint on the shelf by Honolulu Bay poster.”
Thanks to Ron, he took my lawn cutting cash and put me in business.
On the ninety minute flight from Florida, I listened to music the old fashioned way.
When I get nervous, a song sticks in my mind and plays
over and over again.
“Signs, signs, everywhere a sign. Blocking out the scenery, changing my mind. Do this, don’t do that! Can’t you read the signs!”
An elbow shaped stretch of rock and sand appeared out the turboprop planes window.
“Look!” I shouted. “Whitewater!!”
We landed hard on a pot-holed runway in North Eleuthera.
The name Eleuthera meant freedom in the language of the
English loyalists that fled America during the revolutionary war.
The plane did not taxi to a terminal as there was none.
Attendants in flip flops pushed a set of roll-up stairs. A man with a uniform and pistols took $10 each from us—the Bahamian welcome tax!
Rental cars were out of budget. Drivers tried to grab our boards. We bargained for
a motor scooter rental. One scooter between the four of us. Hey, we were stupid kids with a $80 each on us and
a suitcase full of peanut butter jars and bread.
We drew straws to be dropped off first near the
beach. One road ran up the spine of the island. It rolled over hills and offered views of water on both sides. It was called the Queen’s Highway. We looked for the crumbling silos of a pineapple farm marking a shell trail to “Surfer’s Beach”.
We hiked through the fields and over a dune line and there it was: The summer swell that could
not reach us in South Florida. Wave after wave
appeared first in dark indigo water. They stood tall as the water became aquamarine, and then capped and tossed with bright white spindrift over a shallow reef painted orange with fire coral.
The sun and sky was blindingly bright. The beach was pristine. No surfers. No tourists.
Just miles and miles of sand and coconut palms.
I rushed into the lineup and paddled after the set waves.
They could be easily caught on the dome shaped reef, and
offered an exhilarating left slide over the colorful coral heads and tropical fish.
After dozens of long and similar waves, I learned to feel the fast parts of the wave,to steer my board high in the wave to accelerate, and to drop downward to speed ahead of falling sections. Soon, I was starting my rides north of the peak to angle into the very steepest and most powerful part of the swell beneath the falling crest. When I fell, I swam after my
bright yellow board. I found it in a shoreward deep spot, climbed back on and paddled out. Again and again. None of us had thought wear a T-shirt for
sun protection. I had zinc on my nose, but that was it. The surf trunks of the day were made of brittle canvas, and quickly chaffed the legs.
The water was cooler here. I didn’t feel the
burn until later that night. I was in a surfing trance.
Paddle. Ride. Paddle.Repeat. Mid-way through the day, I spun around and noticed my friends were gone.
After a long bit, , Jerry paddled out. “Your missing the topless girls on the beach”
“Ha! I laughed, “Of course! Should I paddle in and let you surf alone!”
“I’m not kidding Bambino. There are three of them. The leader’s name is Diana. She wants to ask you if they can stay with us in our cabins. I’m going back. Stay out as long as you like by yourself!
Dehydration started to press on me, and in the corner of my eyes I began to see a dark shape so I rode in.
I couldn’t believe it. Sure as shit, my three knuckle head friends were sitting in a circle with three hippie girls who looked a bit too worldly wise.
Telling the story now, I feel like a fool. My head was filled with passion and shutting off the flow of common sense to my brain.
We shuttled them one by one on the back of the scooter, showed them our little rental cottage at the Hatchet Bay Yacht Club and didn’t think twice when they asked us to buy them food and beers. Many beers and expensive menu items–more than the grill cheese sandwiches we purchased for ourselves.
Call me a spoilsport, but back at the room, I quietly grabbed my wallet and stuffed it under my pillow. One by one, I suggested my friends do the same. The girls slept on the floor and when we awoke, they were gone.
Our fridge had been emptied. So had our backpacks of things like T-shirts, toothpaste and sandals. We looked at each other with stunned looks. Suddenly, we were a few years wiser than our fifteen birthdays.
Have you ever had a day, you wished you could forever erase? I did not know it yet, but for me, that day was today.
A hundred miles north of the Bahamas, a pocket of cold Canadian Air had swept into a hole in the jet stream and collided with the hot tropical morning. A line of spectacular thunderheads began to form. But, this time instead of the warm air rising and condensing into rain and storm washing itself out, the cold air create an
engine of violence, sucking moisture up into the troposphere, spinning it into deadly vortices and generating enough electrical power to light a city for a week.
Today I was the lucky one, and drew the long straw for the first trip to the beach! We hopped on the scooter and headed north. Halfway up the highway, the air chilled, and ahead us
we looked in horror at a sixty thousand foot high wave of blackness stretch tumbling across the horizon, touching the faces of both earth and outer space.
Golf ball hail, hit our heads and forced Ed to drop me on the side of the road. He motored back for Hatchet Bay straining the 20 horsepower engine to a high whine. I ran like hell in the direction of the beach and the shelter of the cave in its ocean cliff.
Lighting flashed in front of me and the instantaneous clap of thunder deafened my ears and threw me to the ground. The air tasted of and smelled metallic. The grass and Palm trees on either side of the path were engulfed in flames. Before I could crawl ahead, another flash/explosion pinned me down. I prayed to be spared
second chance for my first fourteen years of selfish living during the continuous barrage of electric bolts that targeted me for what seemed like an hour.
Back at the cabin, Jerry, Ed and Bill had found my secret stash of Peanut butter and cheese crackers. They happily chewed away and looked out the window at the blue and gold streams of ball lightning that twisted down main street.
After the storm, a truck driver saw me huddled on the roadside and offered a ride on his flatbed. Ed laughed as I stepped up onto the balcony like a mud-covered zombie. When then realized I was in shock they tempered their laughter slightly, and shared a few of my snacks.
I don’t remember the surf that afternoon or the day after. I did remember calling my parents to thank them for feeding and raising me. I didn’t mention the storm.
Behind the cottage we rented was a working chicken farm. No need for an alarm clock to awaken at dawn.
Turns out the chicken farm would be a highlight of the trip–one that would stamp itself into our memories for life.
Everyday, about the same time we returned from the beach, we heard a tractor motor start within earshot of our porch. Having nothing else to do, on the forth day, we investigated. A driver towed an open wood trailer overfilled with slaughtered chicken remains.
He followed a jungle trail beneath a canopy of Palms.
We walked briskly behind to keep up.
The Jungle obscured the view until we arrived at a cove rimmed with a rock cliff.
While the driver backed the truck up to the edge, I surveyed the ocean cove.
The water in it spilled as a swimming pool. But, this was no swimming hole. Dark, torpedo-like shapes darted in and out of the cove.
Dorsal fins of all sizes and shapes sliced the surface.
And then, from the deep, emerged an impossibly large fin–one the size of a sailboat dagger board. It looked like a fighter plane with wings on its side and tail.It sluiced toward us, and we
shuddered even from the safety of land.
The driver dumped his load of bloody slim into the sea and motioned to the big fin.
“El Gato!” he shouted.
A bloodly line of guts and half birds washed out with the waves.
The driver ran and grabbed a thick rope coiled neatly under a tree. He placed an entire chicken on a steel meat hook and threw it out and yelled to the monster.
The massive shark inhaled the chicken and felt the steel hook.
Its rocket shaped grey head rose high out of the sea and it
snapped its broad toothy jaws at a machine like cadence. The rope went taut and the Palm Tree bent to the ground then snapped in half. Out in the lagoon, an explosion of whitewater obscured a fish larger than two tractor trailers.
I watched the shark disappear into the blue and my gaze turned northward a mile to where we surfed this week without a care in the world.
Along the trail back to the cabin, we spotted something high in the foliage. There canopy of treetops suspended like a broken billboard was the side of an Atlas
Rocket booster. Across its white and black riveted aluminum panels was painted The United States of America.
The astronauts knew what it was like to be far from home. And, now, so did we.