Blasting off from Cape Canaveral, the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts who looked out the windowsaw the emerald Bahama Banks shimmering off the coast of Florida.
If these astronauts had been surfers, they would have squinted their eyes looking for traces of whitewater along the
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 years earlier, the surfing bug bit us extra hard.
The instant that first wave picked us up and the board rushed forward, we were hooked.
The problem, however, was that we lived in South Florida– a place where the ocean turned waveless every summer.
Summer surf travel was going to be a necessity and so research began for a cheap adventure–one not to far from home, but with the chance of surfable summer waves.
A fishing chart illustrated our dilemma: the Bahama Islands stood between West Palm Beach and the open Atlantic–blocking all incoming waves from the east.
But the same chart showed that those outermost Bahama Islands had reefs, bays and beaches facing open ocean that stretched all the way to Africa! I dreamed that each of these islands harbored a hidden gem of a surfing wave.
Mackey airlines operated a flight from Ft. Lauderdale to North Eluthera Island. A ticket was $130. A cottage could be rented on the island for $100 per week.
We wouldn’t think of asking our parents for the money. We considered ourselves adults! So Ed worked in a clothing store. Gerry did bike deliveries. Bill lifeguarded at the village pool. And I built and sold surfboards.
My small business was made possible by my Mom, who drove me from school and waited in the lot of the industrial park of the local surfboard factory were I purchased supplies. I remember tentatively opening the door of a shaping room and looking up at six foot 3 inch Ron Heavyside, owner of Nomad Surfboards. The scream of his power planer made knocking useless. I startled him and he gave me a death-stare while taking 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 begged and begged until he agreed. “Ok that’s it! Two gallons of resin. Give me twenty dollars and beat it!”
“Thank you so much… But, I ALSO need 3 yards of six ounce cloth and a jar filled with that bright orange-yellow tint over on that shelf.”
I will always be grateful to Ron Heavyside of Nomad Surfboards. He put me in business.
On the ninety minute flight from Florida, I looked out the planes’ window.
Finally, an elbow shaped stretch of rock and sand appeared.
“Look!” I shouted. “Whitewater!!”
We landed hard on a pot-holed runway in North Eleuthera.
The name “Eleuthera” means freedom in the language of the
The airport terminal was a shack.
The runway attendant pushed a set of roll-up stairs to the side of the aircraft.
An uniformed fate agent asked $25 from each passenger for an entry fee. The Bahamian welcome tax!
Due to this surprise expense, a rental car was now out of budget. Taxi drivers sensed our predicament and moved in for the kill. They grabbed our boards. And, then we grabbed them back. We spotted a fellow with a motor scooter and bargained for a week’s rental–
one scooter to be shared between the four of us.
We now had about $50 remaining –but also, a knapsack full of peanut butter and bread!
The Cottage in Hatchet Bay was a wonderful bargain. It had four clean beds, two clean bathrooms and a big veranda overlooking an anchorage full of sailboats. Out on the veranda, shaded from the intense heat, we screwed the fins into our surfboards, found the bars of wax in our backpacks and drew straws to determine who would get the first motor scooter ride to the surfing beach
beach. One narrow road, called “The Queen’s Highway” ran up the spine of the island. It rolled over hills and offered views of endless sea in both directions. We looked for the crumbling silos of a pineapple farm said to mark a shellack trail we heard that led to “Surfer’s Beach”.
Through fields of a forgotten pineapple plantation, we hiked. Nearing sounds of the ocean waves, we climbed over a jungle covered dune, and got our first look at paradise! There, rolling across an Indigo ocean were the summer waves forever blocked from reaching South Florida.
Wave after wave
appeared first in dark water. Each stood tall as the water became aquamarine, and then Emerald. Ultimately the wave sparkled with sunshine stood up, capped and tossed with a bright roof of white spindrift. The shallow reef below was brown and orange from spires of fire coral.
The sky was blindingly bright. Empty beach stretched as far as we could see both north and south. No surfers. No tourists. Just hot burning sand, jungle covered dunes topped with coconut palms.
I rushed into the lineup and paddled after every set wave–as greedily as if I were home, fighting for waves at the Pumphouse.
These waves were a lot different from our home break in Riviera Beach. These were long ground swells originated far away by storms off the African coast or Azores. These waves were perfectly groomed from their thousand mile voyage, rose up evenly over the dome shaped coral reef–creating exhilarating left and right slides over the colorful coral heads and tropical fish.
After dozens of long rides, I learned to feel the fast parts of the wave, to steer my board high to accelerate, and to drop downward to speed ahead of falling whitewater sections. Soon, all of us were starting rides just behind the wave’s triangular peak to catch the very steepest and most powerful part beneath the falling crest. When I fell, I swam after my bright yellow board. I usually found it floating in a shoreward deep spot, waiting for me to retrieve it. I often opened my eyes and dove down to see the fish that darted among the coral heads.
None of us had thought wear a T-shirt for
sun protection although I had fortunately painted my nose with white zinc oxide paste. The surf trunks of the day were made of brittle canvas, and quickly chaffed the legs.
In the cooler water of this broad ocean facing sea, we didn’t feel the sunburn until later that night. We were all dazed in a surfing trance. Paddle. Ride. Paddle.Repeat.
Mid-way through the day, I spun around and noticed my friends were gone and I was alone far from shore.
After a bit, ,Gerry paddled out. “You’re missing the topless girls on the beach” he said.
“Ha! I laughed, “Of course, I am! Should I paddle in and let you enjoy these waves to yourself?”
“No, 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 at Hatchet Bay. They came over from Nassau by mail boat. Stay out as long as you like by yourself!
I did just that until dehydration clouded my mind and I began to hallucinate ominous shadows that might be sea monsters.
On the beach, my three friends were sitting in a circle under a giant umbrella with three hippie girls who looked waytoo worldly wise.
Telling the story now, I feel like a fool. Lets just say that teenage thoughts shut off the flow of common sense to my brain.
I said, “Sure, you can stay with us as long as you like!”
We shuttled them one by one on the back of the scooter, showed them our little rental cottage at the Hatchet Bay Yacht Club. We were feeling pretty important from their flattery. None of us hesitated when they asked us to buy them food and beers. They found the most expensive menu items–and we did not object.
Back at the room, I quietly grabbed my wallet and stuffed it under my pillow. Ed did the same. The girls slept on the floor.
The roosters woke us six hours later. I looked to where the girls had put their sleeping bags. They were, of course, long gone.
So was the content of our refrigerator and all the T-shirts, toothpaste and sandals in our backpacks. 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
What was to come, was much more worse than losing our pride and sandals.
A hundred miles north of the Bahamas, the jet stream buckled and allowed a pocket of frigid Canadian Air to decend and collide with the tropical Tradewinds. A line of spectacular thunderheads was beginning to form.
Usually, the warm air would shoot up high, condense into rain and a small tropical storm would wash itself out before developing further. But today, high up in the atmosphere, the unseen turn in one of the planets most powerful jet streams, created an ungodly engine of violence. Moisture flowed straight up an imaginary wall into the troposphere. Gale force winds spun into deadly vortices and millions of volts of negatively charged particles accumulated within towering Thunderheads. A one hundred mile wall of
explosive darkness stretched across the sea and bore down with harrowing speed toward the narrow island.
I got lucky and drew the long straw for the first trip to the beach!
I hopped on the back of scooter and Ed kicked started the engine. We motored happily up the island’s ridge until a freak blast of chilled air, alerted us that something very wrong was about to happen.
Ed looked in horror at a sixty thousand foot high wave of blackness tumbling across the horizon. The blue sky ended abruptly and was replaced by an opaque curtain that defended from outer space to the earth.
“Oh my God” We shouted in unison.
Golf ball sized hail rained down on our heads and forced Ed to drop me off shy of the trail. He quickly turned the scooter back to Hatchet Bay, squeezed the throttle, ducked down low and straining the 20 horsepower engine to a high whine. I ran like hell in the direction of the beach cave, but did not get far
Lighting split the air in front of me. The instantaneous clap of thunder deafened my ears and threw me to the ground. The air tasted of and smelled metallic. Flames engulfed the grass and Palm trees in front of me. Another flash and explosion pinned me down. I was paralyzed with fear. Bolt after bolt of violence concussed the island blackening the ground, toppling palms and filling the air with smoke and ozone.
Once, I had boasted that Catholic High School had cured me of religion. Now, I prayed to be spared by the God, any God, Catholic or otherwise.
“Please, give me second chance for my first fifteen years of selfish living!” I cried, as my hair repeatedly stood on end, and every close strike kept me face down and trembling.
The barrage of freak electricity and deafening thunder battered the island for nearly an hour. Blue fireballs lept between the crumpled stone silos. Spider webs of blinding light rose out of the sea.
Back at the cabin, Gerry, Ed and Bill had found my secret stash of Peanut butter and cheese crackers. They happily chewed away and watched out the windows to see nature’s awesome show– blue and gold streams of ball lightning that snapped and screamed as darted under the tree canopy and rolled down the main street of Hatchet Bay Club like trains on fire. Sometimes it danced between the masts of the sailing yachts in the harbor creating a horrific purple spider web that circled the bay.
For a second, the sky opened a bit to reveal an opening of blue. I sighed relief, then a bolt came down directly at me and exploded so close that I was rolled a few meters down the hill. Pain shot from my eardrums and I sobbed like the child that I really was.
After the storm, a truck driver saw me huddled on the roadside and offered a ride on the open wood flatbed of his truck.
Ed laughed as I stepped up onto the balcony like a mud-covered zombie. When he realized I was in shock and making no sense, he tempered his laughter slightly, and offer me a few of my snacks.
I don’t remember the next two days. It took a long time for the pain in my ears to subside. I moved about slowly and flinched at any loud sound.
On the third day after the storm, I calmed enough to call my parents. I thank them for all the things they had done for me. I didn’t mention the storm.
Behind the rental cottage was a working chicken farm. No need for an alarm clock to awaken at dawn.
Turns out the chicken farm would be another highlight of this very eventful first trip. Yes, another highlight that would stamp itself into our memories for life.
One afternoon after returning from the beach, we heard a tractor motor start within earshot of our porch.
We investigated and saw that a driver was towing an open wood trailer overfilled with slaughtered chickens.
He followed a jungle trail beneath a canopy of Palms so
Wwe fell in behind to see where he was going and what he was going to do.
His journey ended at the ocean, where the jungle opened up to reveal a natural platform of dead coral forming a high rock cliff.
The cliff encircled a small bay, creating a kind of ampitheatre where one standing on the rocks could peer down deeply into a deep pool of ocean.
While the driver backed the truck up to the edge, I surveyed this odd cove. Water spilled in like an inviting swimming hole.
But, this was no swimming hole for humans.
Dark, torpedo-like shapes darted in and out of view.
Dorsal fins of all sizes and shapes sliced the surface.
The man with the tractor dumped his bloody load of
chickens parts over the side. Reef sharks tore at the surface, fighting for the white feathered bodies.
These four footers competed for the larger chunks with six and eight foot gray hammerheads and yellow gold bull sharks.
This bloody scene unfolded for ten minutes, until 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 chased away the small sharks, the medium sharks and the large sharks. It sluiced toward us, and we shuddered even from the safety of land.
The tractor man shouted “El Gato!”
A crimson line of guts and birds washed out with the waves.
The tractor man grabbed a thick rope coiled beneath 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 head rose high out of the sea.
Broad toothy jaws snapped at a machine like cadence. The rope went taut and the Palm Tree bent to the ground before the rope snapped. Out in the lagoon, an explosion of whitewater obscured the monster that looked to outweigh two or three tractor trailers.
I watched the creature hover beneath the surface for what seemed to be an eternity. Finally, it slipped away into the sea and my gaze turned northward a mile to where we surfed earlier in the week without a care in the world.
Along the trail back to the cabin, we spotted something high in the foliage. Suspended in the canopy of treetops a massive aluminum shroud the size of a building glistened in the sun. It was a portion of an Atlas
Rocket booster fallen from the sky after lifting a Mercury astronaut into orbit. A white and black checkerboard pattern was painted across the riveted panels, and ten foot high letters spelled out The United States of America. I knew that island was the last view of Earth they enjoyed during a launch into the unknown.
The astronauts knew what it was like to be far from home. And, now, so did we.