Not long ago I stumbled on an article about the Bahamian mail boat service. I was intrigued by the idea of getting onboard a mail boat (I’d never heard of such a thing) and cruising through the islands to a desired destination. It sounded romantic to me. I mentioned it to my husband, Walter, who also thought it would be fun. So we booked the mail boat to depart out of Nassau and arrive in the southern reaches of Acklins and Crooked Islands. Walter had been shipwrecked on these islands many years ago and he was eager to return and see the island and people who helped him, as was I. The cost to travel via mailboat was only $110 pp one way. Not bad, we thought, for a three day cruise with meals and sleeping quarters, as well as storage for all our gear.
We landed in Nassau and had arranged for a driver to pick us up at the airport and take us around to purchase our provisions. We loaded up at a Nassau grocery store and picked up some wine, beer, etc., as well, since alcohol is not sold on the islands we were visiting. We brought a cooler full of meat from home which would be stored in the ship’s big freezer. We bought over $400 of groceries for the almost four weeks we planned to be away. The driver drove us over to the loading docks and we were now on our own. My husband, myself, and our 12-year-old son Jason were really looking forward to a unique and authentic Bahamian experience.
The busy port was crammed with cars all going in different directions, forklifts running here and there loading up the boats with supplies for the various Bahamian islands. The sun was hot and bright as we trekked across the cargo loading area, side-stepping pallets and forklifts and other obstacles as we made our way up the metal ship stairs, past the massive and loud generator, and up onto the passenger deck of this cargo vessel. A passenger deck overflowing with people. Babies, small children, mothers, fathers, miscellaneous bags of belongings, and confusion. Walter and I wondered what was going on. There was no space for us to enter the passenger area of the ship. It was a small space which was completely overwhelmed by more people than it was created to accommodate, with many others milling around the decks waiting for the ship to head out.
Walter left to gather more intel on the situation while Jason and I waited to see if there was anyone who could tell us what we were supposed to do and where we should go.
As Jason and I waited outside on the surrounding deck I saw a man whom others were calling “Cook” and learned he was in charge of caring for and managing the passengers. He came out on the deck, saw me, and asked how many were with us. I told him and said he was going to try to find a place for us. I had little hope this would happen. I followed him into the tiny hallway where Cook then yelled for everyone to get out of the hallway and move their stuff off the table to let Jason and I sit down. All the Bahamian people – about 50 of them – looked at me and started to move. That didn’t seem right to me.
I looked up at Cook, “I don’t want anyone to give up their seat for us. Let them stay where they are.”
Jason and I went back outside on the deck where the intense Bahamian sun beat down on us. Meanwhile Walter was scouting out a place for us to sleep, since all the cabins had been staked out earlier. He returned to take us up to the top deck where I met a Bahamian man named Axel Hannah. Axel was warm and friendly. He told us it would be great for us to sleep on the deck outside and enjoy the beautiful sky and cool breezes. I looked down at the unrelenting steel deck, back at Walter, and then to Axel.
“So, are there mattresses we can bring out here?”
“No, mon, there’re no mattresses. Mebbe you kin fin’ a blanket to sleep on. Sleepin’ outside, it’s da best!” He flashed us a beautiful set of white teeth and, of course, we smiled back.
Sleeping on a metal floor wasn’t something I could reasonably see myself doing, but we might not have a choice. I walked back to the passenger area and Cook had cleared a path for people to walk. The Bahamians had taken all the cabin rooms and were settling their children. The captain pulled away from the dock. We were on our great adventure at sea but we still had no cabin, no place to put our luggage, and no lunch. We learned they were not planning on serving lunch. So we steeled ourselves to wait out the hours before we could eat again.
I took this moment to ask a Bahamian woman at the small dining table where she was from. She flashed me a smile as beautiful as sunshine and shyly replied, “Acklins.”
One of the reasons I wanted to go to Acklins was to complete the research I’d been doing on my husband’s shipwreck. I told her about Walter being shipwrecked on Acklins and pulled out my computer with the pictures he had taken 34 years earlier. The room came alive with other Acklins people wanting to know more about Walter’s story. I showed all the islanders my pictures, which included the shipwrecked crew, along with local islander children, and also James and Nay who had helped Walter back then. I told them we were hoping to see Nay, if she was still alive. The whole table assured me she was alive and was 83 years old. In fact, she owned the passenger ferry boats and was out at the dock every time one of her boats came in. We would be able to see her when we arrived at the dock in Acklins.
I then learned that James, and also Mr. Darling, who had helped Walter and the rest of the crew, are still living. This was more than we hoped for. The woman with the sunshine smile remembered when Walter and his crew washed ashore. This lovely Bahamian woman told me it was wonderful for us to return to show appreciation to the people who helped Walter and his shipmates. Her words actually brought me to tears.
When the excitement settled down I would look up from time to time to find one or more of them watching me before quickly breaking into a warm and friendly smile. I had a load of new friends now. But we still had no bed.
The problem of where we would sleep was concerning. The crew and cook were overwhelmed with the crowd onboard. I asked an older gentlemen from Acklins where we might be able to sleep. He slapped the kitchen table benches. “Da tree of you kin sleep here.” I looked around at the table full of people doubtfully and then back at him.
About that time Cook walked by and the old man stood up and addressed him, “You need ta get a place for dis family ta sleep.”
Cook replied, “I’ve got something in mind.” And then he disappeared once again. Jason and I sat on the narrow stairs in the stairwell and had to keep getting up and moving for crew members before we sat down on the steps again. The interior of the passenger area was jam packed. There were about 60-70 people onboard in an area that could reasonably accommodate 14.
Cook had restored order to the passenger area and finally gestured to us to follow him to a cabin. He unlocked and pushed the door open. There were four beds – two bunk beds on either side of a small room with no place for our luggage. A sheet covered the mattress but no pillows or top sheet or blanket were available.
“Two crew sleep in here. You can have the top bunks.” We thanked him and he left. And then we looked at each other blankly.
“Okay,” I said. “Well, I guess you and I will sleep in one bunk, and Jason in the other.” I was exhausted and ready to collapse into bed right then, but it was time to eat. We had missed getting lunch after assuming it would be served on the boat. Missing dinner was out of the question. We lined up with the others who were waiting to be fed. One woman saw Jason and called him to the front of the line. The Acklins culture puts children first. No one is fed until all the children are fed. We waited at the back of the line until all were fed. From Cook we received a plate of white rice with some corn and other canned vegetables along with chicken chopped up with some of the bones. We made our way out onto the sunny deck and sat on the hard deck floor and ate our rice and chopped up chicken with canned corn and carrots. We were hungry. We left nothing on our plates.
There was one bathroom for some 60-70 people, so it would take a long time to cycle through all those using the single toilet and shower. There was lots of banging on the bathroom door along with a liberal dose of yelling, which all occurred just outside our cabin.
I was too tired to shower and couldn’t wait for all the people to finish using the one bathroom. I changed into clothes I could sleep in and crawled into the very high bunk with a bit of a struggle. Walter climbed up behind me. I put my back against the wall and draped my leg and arm over his body. We were snug up against each other to fit in that bed. Jason had plenty of room in his bunk.
“Well,” I asked quietly in the darkness, “What do you think of this plan of mine?” I couldn’t help but giggle. “This is a bit rougher than I thought it might be. Are you okay with this?”
Walter chuckled. “As long as you keep reminding yourself this was your idea and not mine.” I smiled into his shoulder.
“I think I like sleeping this close to you,” I replied. “Maybe all those married couples with double beds are onto something. Maybe we should downsize our king bed.” He reached for my hand in the darkness and our fingers intertwined.
Yes, it was noisy. Yes, I had missed lunch. Yes, we were sleeping with two crew members who cycled in and out of their jobs every six hours. Yes, there was only one bathroom for more than 60 people. And, yes, my pillow was my carryon bag filled with Walter’s clean t-shirts and underwear. And yet, I snuggled closer and closed my eyes in utter contentment. I could hear Walter smiling in the dark. As we cruised through the night, ever closer to our destination, I embraced the motion of the vessel and the way the boat gently rocked my body back and forth to sleep.
The only time I could get into the bathroom on that first day was during the middle of that first night. I quietly walked out of the bedroom at about 3 a.m. and was stunned to see the light in the dining area still on. About ten men and women were sitting up around that small kitchen table with their heads nodding down, trying to sleep sitting up. I remembered them telling me about the children being first. And I realized the Acklins adults had all given up their beds to their children. I looked outside and saw many others sleeping out on the cold hard steel deck. I was taking up a bed that someone else could have had. I suddenly felt guilty for having a bed. After visiting the restroom, I returned to my bunk and somberly climbed into it. I tried to think about what it would be like sleeping on a slab of steel on a cool and windy night. Or sitting up all night trying to sleep around a table with bright lights overhead. I gained a new respect for these big-hearted people that night.
A lot of excitement occurred on the morning of the second day when someone clogged the toilet with more than it was willing to accept and everything came spewing out into the common area, including our cabin. Women and men were shouting loudly. Jason lost a sock to the carnage. And bleach was liberally applied to the deck inside the passenger area while Cook shouted about how to use the toilet. The poor man had an awful lot to deal with on that long trip.
That afternoon we arrived at Long Island, Bahamas. At 80 miles in length, it is the longest island in the Bahamas but is only 4 miles wide at its broadest point. Our family disembarked and we set off walking to a beautiful restaurant a short distance away on a gorgeous point. We ordered the most delicious smoked fish dip and then Fish Tacos, and washed it all down with Bahamian Kalik beer before setting off again. Next, we wanted to get a blanket of some sort as it had been freezing the night before. We had our makeshift pillows but no top sheet or blanket. We bought a small blanket for us and a white towel for Jason to wrap up in. There was still time left so we hired a driver – Earnest – to take us around on a mini tour. We ended up at Dean’s Blue hole where Walter climbed up to the top of the rock ledge and stepped off. Brave man! It is such a gorgeous location.
Back at the boat it was time for supper again, so we lined up for another meal. After supper Walter and I managed to find a quick moment to shower together. The shower was a tiny square box with a shot of water like out of a garden hose which provided a rude awakening. We moved quickly and got out of there fast. For another night we cuddled up beside each other. We were beginning to feel painful pressure points from the way we were forced to lay and we restlessly switched places in that tiny bed several times during the night.
We reached Acklins on the third morning at sea. The first several hours had been rough seas. Walter, an old salt, captain, and now ship surveyor, got out of bed in the middle of the night to check on the three large freight trucks on the deck to make sure they were secure. He returned satisfied we would be okay. The next time I awoke the boat had slowed down to make it through the Bight of Acklins, where it is quite shallow. It was very calm and clear and we fell back asleep again.
At breakfast the next morning, after all the Ackllins folks had disembarked, Cook invited the three of us to sit in the kitchen with him while he cooked a delicious breakfast of toast, scrambled eggs, and smoked sausage. And….coffee. I was left in there by myself with him when he turned around, leaned against the counter, and folded his arms over his chest before speaking.
“You really went through something on this trip. This was as wild as it gets on this boat. You happened to come on reunion weekend when everyone is traveling back to their original homes. This was a lot for you to cope with.” He had noticed how we mingled with everyone, were accepted by everyone, and didn’t complain. We are not the typical mailboat passengers, he said. And I could see in the way he looked at me that he respected me for how we had handled ourselves in the midst of a wild and crazy three days.
Finally we were able to disembark. The islanders pointed out which lady was Nay and we eagerly made our way out to meet her. I gave her a big hug and thanked her for caring for my husband when he desperately needed food and water so many years before. She replied, “It’s good to care for people.” We hugged Mr. Darling, who helped put them up in homes back then, as there were no hotels on Acklins years ago. We drove around a bit, saw a few other people, and headed back to the ship to our final destination at Crooked Island, which we would soon reach.
Am I glad I did this trip? Yes, absolutely. The Bahamian people are gracious, selfless, charming, and welcoming. Their hearts are big and their smiles can warm the corners of your soul. Would I do it again? For sure. I might check to make sure it’s not Reunion Weekend. But I am most definitely not sorry we took the mailboat. It is one of the most authentic and memorable experiences you can have. I would do it again in a heart beat.