When did I go to the Bahamas for the first time?
Asking me that is like asking me when I first ate solid food.
My memories don’t go back that far.
Growing up in Palm Beach, whenever I walked up to the beach and looked east, I knew the western tip of Grand Bahama was straight ahead, fewer than 60 miles away.
There, the slate blue of the Gulf Stream gave way to the impossibly clear, aquamarine waters of the Bahamas. By day, under the glittering surface, the ocean came to life with the brilliant colors of the corals, tropical fish and sea fans that still thrived there, unlike at home.
And at night, especially when anchored out, there was no light pollution to mask the shooting stars.
As a kid, I didn’t know that a vacation could be anything but a trip to the islands of the northwestern Bahamas, which were tauntingly close and yet a world away at the same time.
Every August, a couple of weeks before school started, my parents, five siblings and I would collect our snorkeling gear, dive tanks, fishing poles and water skiis on the living room floor. We’d stuff our duffel bags with T-shirts, gym shorts and bathing suits while our mother cooked and froze big aluminum pans of lasagna for the few days we weren’t going to be dining on the fish, conch or spiny lobster we’d catch ourselves.
My father, Harold Maass, a lawyer, had a sweet arrangement with the co-owners of a 50-foot Hatteras yacht called the Hope. He managed the business affairs of the yacht and its two-man crew for the absentee owners, and in exchange our family got to take a trip on it once a year.
He and my mom loved the islands so much that after each of them died — my dad in 2006 and my mom, Nancy, in 2013 — we spread their ashes in the shallow cut between Scotland Cay and Great Guana Cay, right in what turned out to be Hurricane Dorian’s path.
The cays of my youth
My family has made dozens of trips together to the Bahamas, starting before I was born and continuing up until last Christmas. Over the years, we stayed not only on the Hope but also in rented cottages, making daily expeditions from our home base throughout the northern Bahamas.
Besides diving and fishing excursions, our day trips were to villages scattered around the islands, often with stops at the homes of people my parents knew.
Among those we visited was longtime Palm Beach town manager George Frost, a drinking buddy of my dad’s who had a house on Green Turtle Cay in the Abacos. Dad’s friends also included Bahamians like O’Donald Macintosh, a fishing guide with whom he whiled away many hours on the bonefish flats along with Glenn Tatum, a Cuban-American who captained the Hope for decades and made the tastiest conch salad.
We felt warmly welcomed wherever we went in the Bahamas. And along the way we learned something of the islands’ rich, well-kept history.
For years we even had the Nassau Guardian delivered to our house in Palm Beach, courtesy of the newspaper’s owner, John S. Perry, a client of my dad’s.
When I first met my husband, Will, we went to West End, Grand Bahama, with my parents on a small yacht my dad briefly owned. It was on that trip, anchored under the stars off Grand Bahama, that Will first told me he loved me. And a few years later it was on Green Turtle that our then-infant son, Liam, had his first belly laugh, prompted by the sound of a golf-cart horn.
A couple of times my best friend Susan Spencer-Wendel joined us, once flying over with a cooler full of steaks. She spent a few days with us skin diving and indulging in the famous pig roast at Nippers Beach Bar & Grill on Guana. Reports are that Nippers, a favorite of partiers and families alike, was another of Dorian’s casualties.
For families like ours, of which there are many in Palm Beach County, trips to Grand Bahama and the Abacos have always been about more than sun and fun.
They have been about getting to know and appreciate the people who live there. The locals became our extended family.
During my preschool and elementary school years in the 1960s and ‘70s, our destination was either West End, about 25 minutes from Freeport, or Treasure Cay on Great Abaco. Later, we spent all of our vacations in the Abacos, either staying at Treasure Cay or on Elbow Cay and visiting all the nearby cays, including Man O’War, Guana and Green Turtle.
Now all of these places are precisely those nearly erased by Hurricane Dorian, leaving many of our Bahamian friends stranded, homeless, in many cases injured, and with little chance of fully regaining the lives they once knew.
That’s why watching Dorian unleash his fury on the islands felt like a personal loss. The storm demolished communities that filled not only my childhood memories but also those of holidays with my own children, who are heartbroken for the people of the northern Bahamas, too.
It seems selfish and indulgent to catalog those memories now, knowing what the people of the Bahamas are going through. But I do so in hopes of reminding the many who have experienced the islands in the way I have, and perhaps some who haven’t, of why we should do all we can to support our neighbors 60 miles across the sea.
‘Everything in the Bahamas is beautiful’
In my grade-school journals, some of which I’ve kept, I was once asked to write about "my most exciting day."
In fourth grade I wrote about one of our crossings from Palm Beach to West End.
"Weather (sic) you believe it or not, we went through the Devil’s Triangle, and there really was a big storm," I wrote, making an unintentional pun still circled in Mrs. Amedee’s red ink. "It was dark and foggy. The Yacht Hope was being thrown all over. Everyone started getting seasick. Then all of a sudden my dad yelled to the captain, Glenn. ‘Turn directly right. There’s a waterspout ahead.’ We turned and missed it. We were just tossed for a minute. Even though it was a big waterspout. But when we got to the harbor a strange thing happened. It was beautiful, bright and sunny."
Life on the sea is always a bit more precarious than on land.
But once upon a time, I thought happy endings were guaranteed in the Bahamas.
Once in the Abacos, we spent a long night worrying about my brother Mike, who’d failed to return in our 22-foot Aquasport, the Boomerang, to our home base at Treasure Cay from a dive trip to Ambergris Cay. It turned out he’d run out of gas and spent the evening trying to use the boat’s Bimini top as a sail, as well as dragging himself to shore by throwing the anchor ahead of the boat and pulling. He finally made it to the beach that way.
And then there was Hurricane Andrew. I was on vacation with my parents in Treasure Cay for that Category 5 storm in 1992, in the days before the ubiquity of cell phones and Jim Cantore.
There must have been a TV in the condo we’d rented by the marina, but all I remember is that my dad was tracking the storm on nautical charts as we listened to the radio.
No one was sure where Andrew would go. Everyone knew how vulnerable the Bahamas were.
Andrew passed way to the south, slamming into Homestead. Had Andrew followed Dorian’s path, and stayed and stayed and stayed over those tiny cays, who’s to say I’d be writing this story right now.
But most of the time we spent in the islands was utterly carefree. We’d ride back to the marina in the Boomerang, crusted with the baked-on salt residue from a day of snorkeling, and then spend our nights playing Blind Man’s Bluff or monopoly after inhaling the day’s haul of fresh seafood.
Each day on the water held some new discovery.
In another fourth-grade journal entry, the assignment was to write about "something beautiful I saw all by myself."
Again, I turned to the Bahamas.
Indian Cay is a tiny island outside the mouth of West End’s harbor. I’d learned to snorkel there when I was so little, I had probably only recently given up the styrofoam football my parents used to strap to my back when I was learning to swim.
In my journal I described a private encounter with a fish on the shallow reef at Indian Cay.
"I saw a pretty red fish. It had black eyes and a little bit of blue on its body. It was only about an inch long … It was beautiful. But then everything in the Bahamas is beautiful."
Mr. Malone’s neighborhood
Ultimately, the beauty and charm of the Bahamas come from its people.
In West End we’d often walk the mile or two from the marina to the village to get a bite to eat in one of several small mom-and-pop restaurants. The waterfront was lined with piles of conch shells, which kids would polish and sell by the side of the dusty road for a quarter each.
"We bought one from each child," I wrote in my sixth-grade journal. "Conch shell stands are like lemonade stands in the Bahamas."
When you visit the islands of the northwestern Bahamas, you are visiting people’s neighborhoods, lemonade stands and all.
Nowhere has that sense been more apparent than in Hope Town on Elbow Cay, ground zero for Hurricane Dorian.
Home to about 500 people, Hope Town counters the glitz of Paradise Island’s Atlantis resort with something much more appealing to the open-hearted: personal warmth and a guileless approach to tourists guided more by doing the right thing than by turning a fast buck.
In fact, if you talk to the locals, you quickly learn that the bucks turn slowly in the Out Islands, and only with a lot of hard work, even in the best of times.
A dozen or so of Elbow Cay’s families are descended from British Loyalists who settled in the Bahamas just after the American Revolution. The weathered and crumbling tombstones in the settlement’s cemeteries still bear their names, and the architecture still reflects their tastes.
For decades, visitors to Hope Town have been drawn by its picturesque harbor, watched over on one end by the ridge-top Hope Town Harbour Lodge — now a collapsed skeleton — and at the mouth by a candy-striped lighthouse dating to 1864. Spared by Dorian, the lighthouse is the last in the world to still use a kerosene lantern and is featured on the Bahamian $10 bill.
I wonder about the fate of the townspeople whose names I never knew but whose faces I can still picture, and about the children I saw march in the town’s little Junkanoo parade at New Year’s.
We saw some of those same children on our way home after one Christmas in Hope Town. In their tidy school uniforms, they were aboard one of the Albury’s ferries to Marsh Harbour. One ferry captain whose vessel was too full radioed for the school ferry to return to the harbor for us so we wouldn’t miss our flight out of Marsh Harbour. I wondered if the kids had been late to school on our account.
All of the Albury ferries are sunk now, their last runs spent evacuating people.
One of Hope Town’s storm survivors will always stand out in my memory.
Vernon Malone and his wife, Barbara, have owned and operated Vernon’s, a small grocery in the historic settlement near the north end of the 8-mile-long island, since the 1960s. Their family history goes back to the original Loyalists.
Their store was an attraction not only for the staple items it carried but also for the delicious pies and breads Vernon turned out all day long from a small bakery shed attached to the south side of the sturdy concrete building, which is about the size of a two-car garage.
I liked going there just for the opportunity to chat for a few minutes with Vernon, who also ministered to residents and tourists at Hope Town’s St. James Methodist Church.
I appreciated his wry sense of humor, which was evident in little notecards all around the store with pithy quotes, jokes and island commentary. Many of them were reminders to slow down and chill out — reasons you’d come to Hope Town in the first place.
"If you’re looking for Wal-Mart, it’s 200 miles to the right," read one.
Vernon also posted "The 10 Commandments for Travelers," which started with, "Thou shalt not expect to find things as they are at home, for thou left home to find things different."
The sign outside his store read, "Hours Open: When We Feel Like Getting Here. Closed When We’re Not Here Or, We Are Someplace Else."
And yet, Vernon was almost always there, getting up early each morning to fire up the bread mixers and ovens in his shed.
Now well into his 80s, Vernon told me about five years ago he hoped to retire if he could find someone to buy his bakery, but that he couldn’t afford to stop working until he did.
This past Christmas was the last time I saw him, still baking, patiently answering tourists’ questions, and working the register. My family gobbled down several of his pies over the course of our week-long stay.
Vernon was still there when Dorian came, no doubt working feverishly to help provision the more than 300 residents who’d decided to ride out the storm.
Vernon and Barbara, I’m told, survived by taking shelter in their store. But their house was swept away, and with it all they’d worked for all their lives — gone with gusts of more than 200 miles per hour.
They are among the ragged, traumatized survivors on Elbow Cay, banding together to rise back up from Dorian’s destruction.
"There will be no crisis this week," reads one notecard in Vernon’s store. "My schedule is full."