As early evening approached, the shipwrecked captain and crew continued to drift to the northwest. The young Virginian, Tim, captained the dory that towed the four rafted vessels. To get a heading for Acklins Island, they plugged in a Loran C, which uses radio waves to triangulate a position. Once they had a heading, Tim began to tow the rafts at idle speed towards this destination 45 miles away. As night approached, they ate peanut butter sandwiches and drank some of the warm Old Milwaukee beer. It had been a long day. The seas had a light chop but the exhausted crew slept like the dead as they drifted along through the night.

The next morning Tim awoke to discover he had slept so soundly he did not realize he had draped his legs over the battery terminals. Unfortunately, the acid burnt his legs. It was a bit uncomfortable but there was nothing he could do about it. The young Virginian continued navigating towards Acklins at idle speed with the rafts strung behind him, one behind the other.

To pass the time, and in hopes of something more substantial than peanut butter to eat, Tim rigged a rod with a fake squid and managed to hook a 50-60 lb yellowfin tuna. This created a lot of excitement, but the fish proved to be more than they were equipped to handle. Without a gaff, they didn’t have much hope of bringing it onboard the dory. In desperation, they attempted to use a grappling anchor to land the tuna, but this spooked the fish, and they lost it.

Throughout the day the crew used the binoculars to scan the horizon in search of a ship. Several times they thought they spotted one, but there was no response to their radio calls. And then they would realize it was just another cloud on the horizon. The weather looked decent, but they had no idea if current conditions would hold, or if they would find themselves in a storm and become separated.

Around 4:00-5:00 p.m. they sighted land. They now no longer needed the Loran. Tim idled towards the island off in the distance. Through the binoculars the coastline looked to be a white sand beach, ideal for landing their rafted boats. Night fell, and as they approached in the pitch darkness they could hear the waves crashing on the beach. The sea portion of the voyage was nearly over.

***

Back in Miami on that same Sunday night, Walter’s mother, Joann, returned home from church and went to bed. Sometime after 11:00 p.m. she was awakened with a strange urgency to pray for her son Walter. She felt very strongly that her son was in trouble and that she was supposed to pray for him. The feeling would not relent so she got out of bed and on her knees and asked God repeatedly to protect her son from whatever was endangering him. After midnight she felt the danger had passed and so she got back in bed and went to sleep.

***

The remote island was not lit at night, but the moon was waxing and 72.76% full, so there was some light. At 11:30 p.m. the boats and rafts landed on Acklins Island. The weary shipwrecked captain and crew piled out and pulled the rafts and boats as far up on the beach as they could. It had been a long, stressful two days. Walter quickly fell asleep in his raft.

The next morning the crew awakened to find that the beach on which they landed was surprisingly small.  In fact, it was barely wide and deep enough for their five small boats. In the darkness they had had no idea they were not approaching a long sandy beach. But in the broad daylight they realized how close they had come to a catastrophe. As far as they could see in either direction, the coastline was jagged rock but for the tiny spit of beach on which they had washed ashore. The waves they heard the night before had actually been crashing into a rocky coastline. Had they landed a few feet to the right or left they would have been bashed across the rocks and into the solid rock wall face.

The beach where they had landed was utterly desolate. There was no sign of humans anywhere. No road, no nothing but rocky coast on either side of them, dense brush in front of them, and open ocean behind them. They pulled out a chart of the island. Acklins Island is about 50 miles long and 6 miles wide. The chart showed a road on the opposite side of the island and to the east from where they were located.

Walter took one last look back at his raft and the others before heading across the island.

Walter took a walk up the jagged shoreline for about a half a mile. It was littered with pieces of small boats, fishing buoys, and a load of other interesting items. The bluff where they were had a fairly high point, about 20 ft, so they hauled the VHF antenna and radio up to the top and called a few times, but no one answered.

Walter and Mike volunteered to try to cross the island to the road and walk to the next settlement, Spring Point, which was far off to the northeast of the shipwrecked crew, according to their chart. They packed a couple of bags with a few beers and candy bars, a 9 1/2″ Bowie knife for hacking through the brush, a hand-held radio, flares, and a compass. Based on the chart, they estimated it would take about four to five hours to cross the island and reach the road on the other side.

The island was dense with thick, nearly unpenetrable brush and briars.

The island was covered in a very thick scrub. Scrawny trees, too small to climb, covered the landscape and were thickly webbed together with thorny briars and nearly impenetrable brush. It was impossible to walk in a straight line, so they had to repeatedly stop and refer to the compass. This was time-consuming, as the old compass took forever to get a heading. They wondered if it was even operating correctly.

Wearing only shorts and thin shirts, they had no protection from the brush and briars. They were covered in scratches that bled, attracting insects. Walter wished desperately for a nice long machete to help him clear the spiny branches, nettles, and thorns, but all he had was the Bowie knife Bill had provided.

 

The actual knife Walter used to slash his way across the island.

The high bluff on the beach behind them blocked any relief a breeze would have offered. It was like being in a basin. The air didn’t stir and the scorching midday heat became unbearable. They had carried no bottled water onboard the Aldebaran Bay, as bottled water was nearly unheard of in those days, and the canned water from the rafts was in short supply; the two men had only carried beer with them. They sweated profusely in the baking heat and the warm beer, which had temporarily relieved their thirst, was now causing them to dehydrate further.

Mike and Walter became quite fatigued by the sun, the effort of hacking through solid brush, from hunger, but mostly from a lack of water. After two hours in such conditions with nothing to drink their thirst was foremost in their minds. Mike found an air plant with a little water in it and he turned it up and drained that into his mouth.

By late afternoon they had made it to a small clearing where they found an area with tall cabbage palms.  They were hoping for coconut palms, but no such luck. It looked as if there had been standing water in the area not long ago, but it was now dry. Walter thought if they had had something to dig with they might have been able to dig down to some water, but they had no such tool. They had also long since consumed the candy bars and they were very hungry.

Poor Mike was near the breaking point. He was a smoker and was really struggling. He told Walter to go on and leave him, as he could not continue. The two were so dehydrated they could not even spit. Walter radioed the others and told them they were out of water and food. Mike impressed on the others that he was in a bad way. He was very concerned they would not bring help before he died. The crew radioed back that they had no idea in which direction they should head in order to find them. Walter sent up a flare so they could be found and also so the crew could tell them how far they had gone. Shortly after the flare went off the crew radioed they had not made it very far at all and estimated they were not even half way across the island. This was very discouraging news to the starved, exhausted and thirsty men. The crew radioed they were coming with supplies and to stay put.

Mike and Walter cut palm fronds on which to lie. As nightfall approached, the mosquitoes came out in full force. The two spent men were covered in hundreds of blood-encrusted wounds which were now festering from the thorns they had battled and it seemed every mosquito in the area showed up for the feast. The clouds of aggressive saltwater mosquitoes were unrelenting. Walter shot a flare into the palms, each covered in dried, brittle fronds down the length of the trunk. The palms started going up in flames, creating individual infernos. The fire quickly spread and was huge, the flames licking the night sky. They thought they were going to burn the whole island down. Besides keeping the mosquitoes at bay, the fire allowed the rescuers to easily see where the two men were. It was much easier going for Tim and Allen, as it was cooler, they were properly provisioned, and they had the huge fire as a reference to guide them.

At midnight, Tim and Allen finally arrived with water and food. The rescuers had converted the scuba packs into backpacks and had loaded these with canned water from the rafts and some canned fruit.  Although the water tasted terrible – no telling how long it had been stored in the life rafts – they were grateful for it and began to feel better. They ate canned fruit cocktail for supper but it wasn’t enough to satisfy the nagging hunger which had become a part of them. The food supplies for all the crew were dangerously low. They were going to have to find help tomorrow. They saved back some of the water and canned fruit for the following day, collapsed on the cut palm fronds, and fell asleep.

Cooling off in a mud puddle after trekking for two days across the island.

In the morning, after eating the remaining canned fruit cocktail, they set out to cross the rest of the island.  When they were really thirsty, they sparingly shared the remaining canned water. At noon they finally reached the road they had seen on the chart. It was a dirt road and fairly wide. Heading east, they started walking along the road. The heat was once again oppressive. Along the side of the road were some big rain puddles about six inches deep. They laid down in a large mud puddle and poured the water over themselves in an attempt to cool off. Because they did not know if the water was safe to drink, they forced themselves not to swallow it. While they were lying in the puddles they became afraid someone might come tearing down the road and not see them and pass by before they could flag them down. So they got up and started walking down the road again.

Before too long they saw a white pick-up truck approaching from the west. They waved enthusiastically at the approaching vehicle, which stopped about 200 yards away from them and would not come any closer.  The four crewmembers were not a pretty sight. They had not bathed in days, their hair was disheveled, some had beards, and they were covered in mud from the puddles. Their clothing was roughed up from the thick underbrush and what skin was exposed was covered in scratches and pustules.

The shipwrecked crew were happy to see James when they finally made it to the road.

The crew started walking towards the pickup truck and found a man named James, who looked to be about 40, driving the truck. They told James about the shipwreck, about drifting in the ocean with the rafts, about washing ashore on the other side of the island, and then hacking their way across the island for the past two days. They told him about the six others waiting to be rescued on the other side. James had nothing to offer the thirsty men and told them he would have to take them to see the constable on the island. They piled in the back of the truck and James turned around and went back the way he had come.

Mr. Darling, the only government official on the island, was sitting on his front porch in his underwear when they pulled up. Walter couldn’t help but wonder what in the world Mr. Darling must have done to warrant being sent to the remote island of Acklins. He was originally from Nassau, and this little known out island in the southern reaches of the Bahamas was a far cry from the bustling island life of his home. Mr. Darling rose slowly from his porch chair, unfolding his lanky 6’4” frame as he did so. He shook his head in disappointment at the sight of these strange looking newcomers and complained, “I was going to clean my house today.”

The four shipwrecked men told Mr. Darling their story, just as they had told James. They described for him where the others were waiting for them. The constable told them that the commissioner on Crooked Island – the government seat for the atoll – would want to speak with them. It just so happened that 78 bales of marijuana had floated up on Crooked Island the day before – the same day their rafts had washed ashore on Acklins Island. As there were no phones in these parts, Mr. Darling radioed the commissioner to advise him of the new turn of events. The crew of the Aldebaran Bay looked suspicious, in Mr. Darlings’ view. The commissioner would be interrogating each of them.

Nay is surrounded by the grateful crew.

Rescuing their friends required a boat, but it was now lunchtime and the men were parched and starving.  They would eat first and then figure out a plan to get their friends off the beach. James took them into the Spring Point settlement, with a population of about 50, to the only restaurant/bar around – Nay’s Place.  Nay’s door was very low and the men had to duck to enter. They sat and she fed them canned corned beef, grits, and ice-cold Becks beer. Things were looking up.

Spring Point was not located on the beach, although the beach was not far from there, and so the people didn’t own boats. The foursome told the islanders the approximate location of their rafts, and one of the people they talked to thought he knew about where it was and where the road came the closest to that side of the island.

But no one in the settlement had both a boat a motor. After inquiring, they found one man who had a boat and another who had an engine and a can of gas. But before the man with the motor could deliver it to the man with the boat, he first had to deliver some groceries around the island. So, Walter and Allen went with the man who had the motor to help him deliver groceries.

This delivery man had a low storeroom of sorts and the three of them started loading a collection of boxed canned goods into the back of the truck before taking off to make their deliveries. Acklins was a very remote and unvisited part of the world. It was rare the locals ever saw anyone from the outside world.  Everywhere they went the friendly and curious locals wanted to visit or give them a beer.

***

The three islands, Long Island, Crooked Island, and Acklins Island, were not always so uninhabited. In the 1700s British Loyalists settled on these islands after the Revolutionary War, bringing with them their slaves from America.  They established cotton plantations and built rock walls reminiscent of their farms back in England. About 50 plantations were established using more than 1000 slaves. But by 1830 the combination of depleted soil and emancipation put the plantations out of business. The white landowners left for England, leaving the black laborers behind. These people then turned to subsistence fishing and farming for survival.

At the time the Aldebaran Bay crew washed ashore, the total population of the three islands was just over 1000 people, all of whom lived in the several small settlements scattered across the three islands. These islands were covered in cascarilla trees, the bark of which is essential in flavoring Campari liquor. The islanders made a living from stripping this bark and exporting it to Italy where Campari is manufactured.

***

The pickup truck made frequent stops along the side of the road, and people carrying large sacks of bark on their heads emerged from the brush. In exchange for their bark, they received canned goods and some cash. The man made several such stops, as well as deliveries to individual homes. They were gone for about an hour or so before all the deliveries were completed. The crew then returned to this delivery man’s home and loaded his motor and gas can in the back of the truck and headed off to the home of the man who had the boat.

Once the boat and the motor were on the back of the boat, the four crew members hopped in the back, along with James and Mr. Darling, who had since dressed in his constable uniform of blue pants and a white shirt. The curious assembly then headed off to the point of the road considered closest to the other side of the island, which was about an hour’s ride. At this point, they unloaded the boat and motor and the crew carried the boat while James and the other man toted the motor. They walked through the woods for about a mile or so before they finally reached the coast.  It was about a 20ft drop off to the water. They slid the boat down this rocky coastline and then passed the engine down. Mr. Darling then descended to the beach. Not knowing what trouble he might find from the suspected drug smugglers, the smartly dressed constable carried with him an old rusted double-barreled shotgun. Tim accompanied Mr. Darling on this boat trip while the others returned to the truck and headed back to the Spring Point settlement. It was now about 4:00 in the afternoon.

At about 6:00 p.m. the crew went to little beach nearby and waited for the others to arrive. It was nearly dark when they finally saw them coming around the corner and into the little bay where they were waiting.  It was a happy reunion; everyone was relieved to be safely back together. The ten shipmates were split into twos and the kind people in the settlement took them into their homes for the night.

Walter was placed in a house where he was provided a little bed and a basket of sea grapes. The sea grapes he had back in Miami seemed like pathetic scrawny things compared to these big plump juicy sea grapes. They were good, and he ate plenty of them. He was grateful not to be thirsty and hungry.

The next morning everyone met at Nay’s Place for breakfast. Two pickup trucks arrived there after breakfast to take them to see the commissioner on Crooked Island. It was about a 35-mile drive from Spring Point to Lovely Bay, where they could get a ferry across to Crooked Island. All along the way people knew about these shipwrecked people and that they were on their way to Crooked Island, so everyone came out on the road to wave at them. The shipwrecked mates stopped several times to talk to the locals, who generously offered them beer. At one place they stopped and played a game of pool. They were asked many questions about their shipwreck experience. When it was time for them to leave, the locals would say, “God bless you.”

In the settlement of Snug Hill, through which they passed, there seemed to be more steeples than people. Everyone they met was friendly, caring, and kind and did all they could to help the stranded strangers. It wasn’t much, but the captain and crew gifted the boats, and other items they were unable to take home, to the locals in the Spring Point settlement.

The school children touched the girls’ hair as some of them had never seen white people.

When they arrived in Lovely Bay they had to wait for the tide to come in so the ferry could make the crossing. While they stood waiting they saw a little school nearby and the children ran over to see them.  In the ’70s and ‘80s there were virtually no tourists to this part of the world (and very few even today), and many of the children had never seen white people. They were fascinated with these strange visitors and repeatedly touched the three girls’ hair.

Finally the tide came in enough for them to be able to cross. The guys had to get in the water and push the boats out to deeper water. Once they were on Crooked Island, two more pickup trucks carried the group to Colonel Hill, the capital. Here they met the commissioner who interviewed the crew and captain one by one.  He was a friendly man and seemed satisfied with their stories, as they all had basically the same thing to report. He did not feel they were responsible for the bales of marijuana found on the island.

The group was then taken to Pitts Town Point where they enjoyed a very good supper. They spent the night and, in the morning, a small plane arrived and took them back to Miami on two separate trips of five each.  The captain paid for the crew’s flight back and Walter arrived home from his great adventure late that afternoon, safe and sound at last, with a story to last him a lifetime.

AFTERWORD:

Bill Sutton, owner and captain of the Aldebaran Bay, never paid his crew for their work on the Aldebaran’s last voyage, and never compensated them for their personal belongings that were lost when the ship sank.  He had a one million dollar insurance policy on the boat when it sank in 12,000 ft of water. Once he returned to the States, Walter never heard from Bill Sutton again. 

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