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The Bahamas: Man O War Cay

July 22, 2010

Photos by Ken and Peg Herring

Recently in Seattle the Bahamas have been in the news, courtesy of a young guy from Puget Sound nicknamed “The Barefoot Bandit” in recognition of his exploits while avoiding the police over a two-year period, and who finally made his way to Abaco in the Bahamas before he was captured.

Interesting story but besides the point.  My family has been going to Abaco since long before I was born, specifically to Man O War Cay, located a few nautical miles east of Marsh Harbor, the larger island’s principal town.

To get to Man O War Cay we always took the small ferry boat that made the run from Abaco several times a day, usually in coordination with incoming flights.  The boat would travel to the small island and let passengers debark at their individual docks.  Very nice service that continues to this day.

1) Ferry boat

Man O War is horseshoe-shaped, about three miles long.  Its native vegetation runs to basic scrub with a lot of imported exotics.  Abaco used to boast forests of durable hardwoods, but these were harvested long ago for boat-building.  The most prevalent tree is Australian pine.  Even the coconuts are foreign; a pest wiped out the Caribbean coconut tree many years ago and what grows now is exclusively the Pacific variety.

2) Man O War harbor and landscape

The local climate is sub-tropical; temperatures may hover near freezing in the winter time, although such events are rare.  The Atlantic Ocean provides a temperate influence most of the time.  During the recent news about the Barefoot Bandit some writers positioned the Bahamas as part of the Caribbean islands. This is manifestly untrue; the Bahamian out islands lie well north of that body of water.  Apparently many journalists have become too lazy to look at a map.

3) Nearby Guana Cay makes for a nice day trip by runabout; photo by Neil Herring

I first traveled to Man O War as a teenager.

4) Driving a boat in my younger days

My parents, for better or worse, thought the place unsuitable for small children and so would escape us kids and go by themselves when I was young.  Originally my grandfather had sailed there with his friends in the post-war period, bought land and built a cabin, so our family was well-known to the locals.

5) My grandfather’s cabin. It overlooked both the harbor and the open Atlantic on the other side of the island

The islanders are an anomaly in the largely black population of the Bahamas being white descendants of American colonists who remained loyal to the Crown during the Revolution and who bailed when the USA became independent.  Most came from Florida.  You can still hear traces of old Cockney in their accents when they speak although this has largely disappeared as they have become more Americanized.

Boat-building used to be the mainstay of the local economy. The Albury family was famous throughout this part of the world for the grace and quality of their wooden vessels. Alas, this labor-intensive art has been mostly sidelined by fiberglass boat construction.

6) The William Albury, perhaps the finest example of Man O War boat-building still afloat.  Baby boomers may recognize her from the cover pic of the Crosby Stills and Nash mid-1970s self-titled album

Another fine vessel was Lucayo, made for Bill Lee and abandoned by her final owners in the Pacific after the captain suffered a heart attack.

7) Lucayo, a 56 ft. motor-sailor: photographer unknown

One of her few remaining artifacts is the salon table, which sits near my office desk in Seattle.

8) Salon table from the Lucayo here in Seattle

About a year ago I saw online that Lucayo’s sister-ship was for sale in France.  Decrepit and rotten, she was a sad sight in the pictures.

Before the coming of the Americans, life was hard on Man O War.  The island has no ground water and the inhabitants had to rely solely on rain for all their needs.  Disaster struck if enough rain did not fall.  Periodic hurricanes also ravaged the island.  I remember once listening to an older woman telling me about one cyclone where she and her family were forced to take refuge  from the storm surge in a tall tree near the cay’s center.

By the end of World War II the islanders had been forgotten by the distant remnants of the British Empire.  Malnutrition was not unknown and stark poverty were an intermittent presence in the natives’ lives.  But all changed with beginning of the age of yachting in Florida, just over a hundred miles to the west.

However the inhabitants still preserve an amazing knowledge of the ocean; they know her charms as well as her dangers.  I was taught as a teenager most everything I know about the sea by Robbie Weatherford, my grandparents’ close friend.

9) Robbie with my grandmother, early 1970s

Sunsets on Man O War have always been an occasion for neighbors to get together for a few drinks. I once sold an image nearly identical to this one to a Florida real estate company that was promoting their condos on the (then oil-free) Gulf of Mexico coast.  I guess they figured no one would ever figure out that the picture wasn’t shot in Florida!

10) Sunset from our property

Today my brother maintains the cottage that my parents built on land adjacent to my grandparents’ original property was(my daughter Vanessa recently was a recent visiter).  The family tradition carries on.

11) The harbor as it looks today from my brother Neil’s house, Sea’scape.  He rents the place during the winter high season: photo by Vanessa Herring

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Melissa (McMath) Staten permalink
    August 26, 2011 10:07 pm

    Kit,,I don’t know if you remember me,,I was married to Charlie, Melissa.Just found your blog and remember all the great times in Man-o-War.Miss Alice’s bread,conch fritters, and fishing with Robbie.Those were the days,eh?!

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