By Ida Little
I realized that if I considered all the possibilities of what could happen, I’d never get on with the cruising.
When Michael and I were cruise camping in the Exumas on the Bahamas Islands last winter, a friend of mine suggested that she and I go off on a cruise by ourselves. We’d take my 17-foot Old Town sailing canoe Manatee, a tent, some food and make a leisurely week’s journey. It sounded like fun and a challenge to cruise with someone who didn’t know much about sailing.
Michael and I have always shared equally the responsibilities of cruising, but I’d always wondered how I’d do if I had to rely completely on myself. So when Caroline found she couldn’t make the trip, I decided to go ahead alone.
I planned my cruise northward through the Exumas’ Pipe Creek to explore a small, isolated cay just west of Hall’s Pond. It’d take me a week, I figured, depending on the weather.
Steering northward from White Bay Cay, I let the sheet slip through my hand and watched the red and white sail swing out perpendicular to the canoe. A gentle southerly breeze coaxed Manatee along while I leaned back, stretched my legs out over the gunwale, and watched the low cays to starboard drift by. Through my mind wandered daydreams and memories. One memory caught my attention and I held on to it, savoring again the joy of a childhood scene. While playing by the backyard pond as a child of five or six, my mother walked up to me and casually asked that I run around the pond and row the boat across to her. I stared at her for a moment to see if it were true, that she was asking me to do something I’d only in my wildest dreams imagined doing. It was true! I raced . . . floated . . . around the edge of the pond to where the boat lay pulled up on the bank. The grass was soft green and tickled my face when I slid the boat into the water. It was so easy! I sat and pulled on the oars, making murky whirlpools swirl at their ends. The oars felt solid and rough in my hands; my back muscles felt strong under the strain, I felt splendid rowing my boat across the pond alone.
The intense noon sun burning my skin interrupted my reflections. I reached under the spray cover for an old T-shirt, dipped it in the sea and put it on. Great Guana Cay stretched out beside me under the scorching sun, another long link in the monotonous chain of low, scrubby, desert lands that reach 80 to 90 miles from Lee Stocking to the northern tip of the Exumas. The Bahamians who live here, having resisted the singing Sirens of Freeport and Nassau, are resigned to a life of struggle for water and crops. But these old folks are hardy. They prefer to struggle with the elements than to struggle against each other. So do I, I thought, stretching my legs out under the spray cover for more shade. What better place to enjoy the freedom of running your own course without crashing into somebody else’s idea of where you should be going, and how? At the north end of Great Guana I sat up alert. Sailing through the channel currents is tricky — a small slip-up would easily flip Manatee. With the outgoing tide I’d be in Exuma Sound very fast. Swamped, Manatee’s ABS plastic will keep her afloat. Small comfort. I pulled the sheet to reach westward a bit — away from the cut.
At Staniel Cay I was very surprised to see the 30-foot sloop Hope anchored off the Happy Peoples Marina. Hope I knew to be skippered by a worldly woman whose cruise I had followed since our meeting in the Windward Islands two years earlier. It’s been rare that I’ve met a woman singlehanding or skippering her own boat. And Mareva, because she was having a good time answering the demands of a solo-cruise, stood out in my mind as a good example for women who aspire to becoming self-reliant sailors. I sailed over and found a note tacked to the cabin hatch. Mareva, her sister and a friend had gone out diving, I noted that I’d look for them on my return.
Sailing on towards Sampson Cay, thinking about Mareva happily and successfully skippering her own boat for over 10 years, I was reminded of an incident that happened when Michael and I were caretaking an outpost fishing camp in Canada. Three young couples with their children arrived one weekend. Michael asked one of the men how many boats they’d be wanting to use. “Oh, three will be plenty,” he answered. I was puzzled. “You mean, three boats for all 15 of you?” “There are only three men,” he answered, “the women don’t know how to run outboard motors.” That weekend I watched his 10-year-old son get into a boat, start the motor and go off fishing . . . by himself. We women too often allow ourselves to be pressured (sometimes subtly) into stepping back and “letting a man do the job.” We become spectators enjoying life vicariously without the thrill, and satisfaction, of real involvement.
After six hours of exposed sailing I decided to stop at Sampson for a cold beer. I headed for the dock on a close tack then let go the sheet to sidle up between a couple of 50-foot yachts.
Inside the bar it was cool. I ordered a cold beer, then fell into a soft chair. A couple, sitting at a table enjoying an early cocktail hour, looked at me curiously. For the first time since leaving Michael and the security of our isolated camp I felt nervous. Looking as if some sort of struggle were going on inside her, the woman spoke up, “Did you just sail up in a little red canoe?”
“That’s right,” I smiled warmly, already feeling the genial effect of a cold beer on a hot and empty stomach.
Unsatisfied, she braced herself to purse the matter further. “Alone?!”
Again I answered, “That’s right,” but I could see that this was just making her more curious. I explained that I don’t usually cruise alone but that I felt ready to try it. This she could deal with . . . sort of. With a look of horror on her face she turned to her husband and said, “Leonard, this child is sailing that little . . . little . . . dingy — alone!”
Twenty-five years makes for a somewhat old child but I did start to pity myself in a child-like way. I patted myself on the back with: “Who are you to go out cruising over the sea — alone? You poor, brave, helpless? . . .” until Leonard effectively grabbed and stopped my hand with, “You saw her sail in, Harriett, and you saw she could sail that canoe. Oh, she’s all right — havin’ a hell of a good time looks like to me!” He grinned. “Right?”
“That’s right.” I agreed, feeling a calm relief settle over me. Though it was tempting to wallow in the dubious glory of being considered something special and outstanding I much preferred, and needed, to be recognized and accepted as someone capable of sailing alone. I wasn’t prepared for nor planning on sailing singlehanded around the Horn or anything, but I did feel capable of cruising through Pipe Creek and we talked about that.
After one last cold beer we walked out on the dock together and said goodbye. I climbed down into the canoe while they walked on to their motor yacht. I shoved off feeling slightly light-headed and lowered the boards while the sail lulled. Steering out of the bay, we waved to one another — Harriet still looked as though she wanted to protect me. And I knew I didn’t need to be.
I realized that if I considered all the possibilities of what could happen I’d never get on with the cruising
Grateful for Manatee’s two-inch draft with the boards up now, I sailed along easily among the small cays and reefs north of Sampson. I might still run into an unseen reef and dent the hull, but I wouldn’t sit on the reef and pound up and down all night.
I decided to make camp on a beach close to one of the cuts. The horseshoe-shaped beach laced southward, so I knew the onshore breeze would discourage insects. I set up the tent under a casuarina, unfolded my chair and sat down for a smoke. Casually, I picked up the Yachtman’s Guide to the Bahamas to plan a winding route through Pipe Creek.