Bahamian Magic

By: American Sailing Association, Flotillas

Continuing “Trekking by Sail, Exuma Islands”
We slept soundly under cool pine trees, fifteen feet from the hushing surf. The next morning, after spiced omlettes and beachside mugs of coffee, we loaded up the boats and slipped back out into the blue bay, striking in the sunshine. I rode along in the Golden Fleece with Teri and Steve; they made good time across the open water, through quiet channels, and up to the sparkling white, conch-lined beach on which we dropped anchor for lunch.

Over chips and sandwiches, Dallas told us about the hidden attractions our stopover held. We would take a short hike inland to the top of the island to explore a deserted German castle, and then visit the cool cave a short distance away where the German kept his goats. I suppose fresh goat’s milk was the ultimate luxury.

The first part of the hot midday hike was along the beach through fields of conch shells, ancient grey to vibrant pink ones. When the white stones of the trail turned inland and upward, we became shaded by scrubby foliage for a few minutes before reaching a grove of lush trees flanking a deserted castle. The soft green leaves and diminutive indigo blossoms were fresh as springtime in Washington state, and they stood out in striking contrast to the stiff, hardy island foliage found elsewhere.

These trees, Dallas told us, were the “Lignum Vitae,” the national tree of the Bahamas. The one we stood beneath was over 100 years old but was only the height and girth of a maple sapling. I knew from my high school Latin courses that this name was significant, meaning “wood of life.” What a peculiarly delicate tree to stand here in the blazing heat of the Bahamas. I found out later that Lignum Vitae is one of the hardest, densest woods on earth (and will sink in water); it also, according to Arthurian legend, is the stuff that wizard Merlin’s staff was made out of. As we picked our way through the creaky dust in the cool deserted castle, I didn’t know about Merlin’s staff yet, but I sensed that this tree was magical.

When we reached the beach near the end of the hot hike, a few of us floated the rest of the way back to our anchorage in the bright blue current–shorts, hats, Cokes, and all. Then Dallas and Ian led us out to a nearby reef and showed us another kind of Bahamian magic–spearfishing. A few people tried to follow suit, but I was content to put on my snorkel and trail our guides underwater as they free-dived for grouper and triggerfish. Again and again Dallas would shove his arm inside a reef to startle out dozens of rainbow-colored fish. Quick as one of them, he would dive down, shoot, and rise holding the speared fish in one arm victoriously above the water as he swam back to the boat.

The fishes’ bodies glinted in the sun with the subtle shimmer of a gasoline-stained puddle. They gasped their last in the hot midday breeze before being laid on top of their unfortunate kin in a bright yellow bucket. The whole spearfishing dance was like watching the food chain explained in mime, acted out in the colorful, underwater silence. Dallas grew up with these species; when someone would surface and ask “what’s this orange and white one?” he’d respond “don’t shoot that one, I can’t think of a single orange fish that’s worth eating.” Orange or otherwise, I can’t imagine ever eating fish from the market again. Because this afternoon snorkling adventure turned into the fairest and freshest dinner I’ve ever tasted.