The furniture in the Bahamian Customs office was not beautiful. It had a functional aesthetic of old Soviet-era spy movies—films where Bond breaks into bureaucracies to steal documents from high-ranking Kremlin officials. The desk, metal imposing as a tank, looked like it had been bought surplus after the fall of the USSR. The chairs were hard-backed and made us as tense as the Cold War. The lazy ceiling fan over our heads was losing the battle against the oppressive midday heat.
Sinbad had jumped off the boat nearly before we had gotten the heavy lines tied onto the concrete dock by the customs building. Without so much as a wave goodbye, he scooped up his bag and hailed a taxi, off to the airport and the clean, modern world. Passenger wished us good luck and gave us a smile and his Skype information. He was the one I would miss.
Captain insisted we change clothes into something nice before going ashore and clearing customs. I, wearing my only button-up shirt and nice pair of pants, now understood why. Looking the way I did 10 minutes before, barefoot in a filthy bathing suit, there would have been no way the customs official—a corpulent, scowling Bahamian woman, tasked with the serious work of operating a border—would have let me into her country. She eyed us with a look of skeptical bewilderment.
“So tell me again what it is you intend to be doin’ here in da Bahamas?” she asked the captain.
“Starting a pirate-themed day-sail charter business,” he replied. “With the cruise ships in the harbor. We’ve been talking to some Bahamian partners—do you know the Symonettes?”
“Well, uh, anyways … that boat that’s tied to your dock is a world record holder.”
“Yes, for the longest sea voyage in history. I sailed on that boat for a thousand days, out of sight of land and without resupply…”
As the captain tried to woo the customs official with his tales of adventure, I gripped the arm of my chair. The ground in the steamy office felt like it was moving beneath me—an aftershock of spending 10 days at sea. In maritime circles, it’s called “stillness illness.”
“And what about dem?” she interrogated and motioned towards us.
“These are my crew. They’re going to be helping me out with the business.”
“Even da girl?” the official queried with a glance toward the Artist. “Not often you see a girl on a sailin’ crew.”
She shifted her gigantic bulk across her desk in the direction of the timid artist and said, in a low whisper, “Dey’re not just makin’ ya cook and clean, are dey, girl?”
“Man, she’s tougher than any of the guys!” Captain declared. “She steered us into the harbor this morning!”
“And we all help with the cooking,” offered Saint helpfully.
“Is dat your boyfriend?” the customs official asked.
“No,” said Artist.
“That would be me,” I said with a little wave.
The customs official looked me up and down, smiled, looked at Saint, smiled even wider, and winked at Artist. Suddenly, her demeanor changed. “Surrounded by strong sailor men—mmm! I could trade places wit you, honey. Alright, welcome to da Bahamas. Let me see your passports.”
We handed them over. She stamped them with practiced efficiency and wrote “100 days” in cursive under length of stay. “If ya need to stay longer, just come see me again. Have a nice day.”
We thanked her and shuffled out of her office, before careening down a long white hallway that led to a bright door. We stumbled out into sunlight—palm trees, people everywhere, smells of cooking food, the noise of traffic, car horns, exhaust, music piped in from little speakers drilled into the palm trees, colorful clothes, gleaming white ships looming over us, thin Bahamian men hawking paintings of sunsets and conch shells to tourists, bars, trinket shops. It was the dynamic island of New Providence, her capital city of Nassau, her people. Her visitors, brought in by the shipload (four new cruises every day), left her with lighter wallets and happy memories. Across the bay we could see the densely forested Paradise Island. The coral-colored buildings of the Atlantis resort towered over the palm trees.
It was all a little overwhelming after 10 days of nothing but ocean, and we walked back to the customs dock with the intention of anchoring the schooner in the harbor. But when we got there, the tide had turned, pinning us to the dock. Captain tried to explain to the guards we couldn’t leave until the tide switched.
“This is a deep-draft, full-keeled boat,” he kept saying. “She doesn’t maneuver that easily. I can’t just back her out of here—there’s too much water pressure coming broadside for me to turn her around. I’m going to have to wait until the tide switches. I promise we’ll be out of here first thing tomorrow morning.”
The guards consulted amongst themselves in low voices, and finally reached the consensus that it would be fine. We were instructed to leave before eight o’clock.
“We can do that,” Captain said. “Thanks.”
The four of us went back aboard our little ship. It was the first time in a long time we had nothing to do. I tried unsuccessfully to text my mother to let her know I was alright, but my phone didn’t work out of the country. I’d have to find an Internet cafe and send her an email instead. But that could wait. It was time for a celebration of our arrival. We were here! We were finally here! We made it! We crossed an ocean, and were still riding the wave of energy and adrenaline that kept us alive out on the open sea. Now, as we had reached the shore, we could feel it starting to barrel in and crest, making a perfect, hollow tube for us to enjoy one last ride in until we had to hop off and paddle in to begin the serious work of starting a business in a foreign country.
A little smoke was produced, and the four of us sat comfortably cross-legged in the cargo hold and passed it around. We laughed and relived the experience we just embarked upon. We were glad to be rid of Sinbad, glad to have made the voyage safely, glad not to have to wake up in the middle of the night and stand watch anymore, glad not to be moving around all the time. The spicy-sweet smell wrapped itself up our nostrils and around our brains, and made everything feel warm and light, like resting on a cloud.
The sun set and the moon rose on our first night in Nassau between the two tallest buildings of Atlantis. It was an island moon, a tropical moon, the same moon that had lit our night watches on our voyage south—the same cold moon we left behind in the frigid winter in North Carolina. Now it shone brightly on our little schooner, safe at last in Nassau harbor.
John Wolfe is a licensed captain who still gets seasick in rough weather, but goes sailing anyway. He holds a BFA in creative writing from UNCW. When he’s not writing, he can be found on the water, playing music or drinking beer. “Going Aloft” is Wolfe’s nonfiction serialized piece, to be published in encore every other week in 2016.
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