An Island Storm

And the art of sleeping through imminent danger

Snorkeling

Michelle after snorkeling. The only footprints in the sand are our own.

Michelle and I are camped on the most idyllic beach in the history of all beaches with a sleepy blue lagoon in front of us and a small cay at the mouth of the bay protecting us from the open ocean. The ocean itself is flat as a pancake, and the inner lagoon is even calmer, mirror like. We are surrounded by palm trees, beaches, sea turtles, and coral reefs on the seventh of our seven uninhabited Bahamian islands. We haven’t seen a soul all week, and we were briefly shocked to see the masts of a sailboat just once, far out on the horizon earlier in the day. With sails furled and under power, it seemed to hurry away in the direction of known civilization, and that was that. Back to being alone on our desert island paradise.

Tomorrow we will turn around and make our way towards the unwelcome multitudes with their roads, docks, tasty beers, and comparitively massive settlement of several hundred people clinging to the outskirts of humanity. But for now we are in an easy state of mind, peaceful, and in harmony with everything natural around us. The idea of anything other than crystal waters, sand, solitude, sun and palm trees is beyond comprehension, and I am at home in this wilderness. This is my element.

Pink sand beach

Pink sands fade quietly into calm blue water.

Shocked green heron

A green heron sharing our island is shocked to hear that we won’t be evacuating.

I’m very happy. I’m blissfully clueless.

Later I’d learn that people were bailing away from the Bahamas, and virtually every boat on the water would be making emergency calls for assistance by morning. For me, while listening to the gentle lap of the lagoon well into twilight, there’s only the slightest hint of an evening rain, and frankly, I’d welcome it. Paradise is lovely, but—and don’t interpret this as a complaint or anything—it’s exceptionally hot.

The highest point on this desert island is maybe 250 feet, but I can’t climb inland for a view. Within a few yards of the beach, the vegetation is so dense that it’s all I can do to locate a spot that’s about two-feet higher than the sand and maybe, just maybe, large enough for our tent if we don’t mind clambering over a poisonwood tree. Damn, did I just climb over a poisonwood tree? Well, it’s not much of an option as an escape, but that’s ok because our tent, happily snuggled on the beach, is already a foot above the highest possible high tide mark. The water didn't get anywhere near the tent last night, and it would take the storm surge of the decade to get water in our front door. The prevailing easterly winds would have to reverse and come in as an epic gale from the west. The waves would have to be block buster. The ocean would have to overwhelm the small cay protecting our lagoon. This is all highly unlikely. I’m not worried.

Michelle is very worried. By nightfall, there’s a spectacular lightning show brewing over the water to the west. Good, I think. It’s like watching lovely fireworks, secure in the knowledge that the experts are taking care of things so that nothing unpleasant will land on our tent. There’s just no chance that the storm is hitting our beach. Michelle doubts the experts and consults with a nurse shark cruising the reef. She does not like the shark's prognostication, furrows her brow, and slinks unhappily into the tent.

The storm moves closer. Hmm. Ok. I remain optimistic, but I’m not stupid and inspect the ropes on our kayaks to make sure they are well tied to a tree on the shore. After checking and rechecking the tent, I use the last of the duct tape to patch a supposedly waterproof “dry bag”. I stuff the bag with its many brethren under a tarp. If I have to move our camp in the middle of the night, then everything is in one place and ready to go. I crawl into the tent as an impressive flash of light illuminates the inside with a bright orange glow, highlighting Michelle’s very tense jaw muscles. The stress seems very out of place on an island paradise.

Mangrove before the storm

A lone mangrove sits in the calm turquoise and sand-colored waters of the Bahamas while the dark skies of a really impressive storm build in the background.

Another mangrove before the storm

The quiet before the storm. A single mangrove, near the shore of an uninhabited island, sits in the quiet and amazingly colorful waters of the Bahamas. The approaching storm gives the water an other-worldly appearance.

Green storm waters

Notice how the water has changed color over the last few photographs, turning an ever increasingly fantastical green. Generally speaking, Bahamian waters come in every imaginable shade of blue, but before a big storm, the intensely green water lets you know that it's time to find higher ground. At least, that was the message I should have received on this occassion. I wasn't listening. I was too mesmerized by the swirling ever-changing hues.

A sixth sense insists I wake up. I can’t believe my ears. An angry god is devastating our island. The wind is whipping from the west and an impossible surf is pounding the shore. I check my watch and we are still several hours from the 1 a.m. high tide. I peer cautiously under the rain fly and the waves are crashing a few feet away. I make a mental note that with our serene, shallow, and well-protected bay this is probably a dream. The waves just can’t get that big. But I should double check in half an hour. I sleep soundly again.

Michelle has a similar sixth-sense experience and is locked in a nightmare where she repeatedly yells at herself to Wake up! Wake up now! She does, and she shakes me.

“Are the waves going to come in the tent?”

“Impossible. I’ve been checking every half hour.”

But the tent has only an inch to spare. The fly is getting splashed, and the sound of immense waves splattering on our shelter is subtly different from that of the driven rain. By subtle, I mean obvious, but plausibly deniable. Lying in the tent becomes an interesting exercise in rebuffing an entirely ludicrous reality. It’s inconceivable. Improbable. Given the location of the seaweed and shells, this is the highest surf in a long time, maybe a year, and maybe a decade. Huh.

I crawl out and find Michelle who is pacing nearby in the tempest. She asks for the third time if we should move the tent. I look over and the water is pounding at the edge of the fabric, millimeters shy of catastrophe, but always mocking and never consuming. The wave violence is brilliantly illuminated in stunning stop-motion action by regular flashes of insanely close lightning. There is nowhere higher on the beach, and our escape is literally through impenetrable poisonous bushes. I’m reluctant and play the odds.

“Nah, it’s high tide. This is the worse. Come back in with me.”

“Uhhhhhh…,” she says with the greatest possible inflection of uncertainty, “I’m going to keep watch.”

After a thoughtful pause Michelle adds, “You know, I’ve decided you can only sleep if there is imminent danger.”

sharkscape

Sharkscape. Landscapes are so yesterday. I'm pretty sure this huge guy thought he was invisible, and I got the impression he may have been considering options as a land shark. Sharks were only one of a number of notable hiccups on our trip. Others included a separated shoulder and expired Indian food. Ugh.

It’s stated as an observation, not an accusation. I haven’t been sleeping well at home, but on this trip I've been pleasantly challenging Rip Van Winkle to a duel despite all manner of reality-warping events. There was the unfortunate near-scuttling of my boat, the terrifying waves across an open channel, and the giant two-foot diameter crab just inches from my head that twice reached for my nose while I tried dozing on the beach. There was the surprise snorkeling event with several large lemon and nurse sharks, the massive and unexpected current that flipped my boat around, Michelle's separated shoulder requiring me to tow her three miles to shore, and the expired Indian food that took a terrible toll. The list goes on. Nothing perturbed me. No worries. Slept peacefully. Loved every minute of it.

I briefly lift the gear tarp to pour off a large puddle. I inspect the duct tape already peeling away from the dry bag, check our getaway route into the hills (such as it is), and contemplate Michelle's meaning. She is insinuating that I’m completely comfortable in the wilderness. It’s not that I don’t see the hazard. Nothing out here is prepaid, prepackaged, catered, or certain. The raw nature towering above us is awe inspiring, ambiguous, violent, and beautiful. It deserves respect, and if I occasionally forget that I’m alive in civilization, then there is no denying my mortality in this wilderness. It’s part of the reason I’m here. I’m really, really happy. I am aware but at ease, and with years of hard-earned experience I’m confident that I can deal with whatever gets thrown my way. I like this storm.

I sleep deep.

Although I'll give it points for trying, not every trip ends in disaster. The water never makes it past the threshold, and neither does Michelle until 3 or 4 in the morning. I wake only occasionally to note the immensely improbable tongues of water that lick under the fly and to relish a cool refreshing mist on my face, which (on later examination of the details) is not really the optimal thing when sleeping inside a tent, but it’s acceptable under the circumstances.

dragon

Who says there aren’t any dragons? It’s a Northern Bahamian Rock Iguana, about 5 feet long from tip to tail. There are only 5000 left in the wild, and we were lucky to see three. This guy was drying off after the storm.

By morning the tide is down, and the seas are rough but not angry. The tarp is a little worse for wear, the no-longer dry bag is pouring water through a hole, and my boat has attempted suicide. I didn’t dare to flip the kayaks upside down, my usual strategy for keeping out the rain. I needed the boats to ride out the tempest, which for most of the night they did admirably before eventually throwing up their arms in disgust. Now abandoned by the tide, my kayak flounders sideways on the beach overcome by the insanely high surf and filled nearly to the brim of the cockpit. The bilge pump and I become life-long friends.

By 9 a.m. we are headed out into the open ocean on exquisitely flat water. No shades of the night’s ferocious explosion remain, other than an occasional giant soggy iguana slowly baking off the wet on a hot limestone cliff. Well, there’s that reminder, and then another comment days later from a local who sails regularly. He is shocked that we didn’t radio for help. Everyone else properly panicked he says, and his indictment is painfully obvious—we must sleep very well in the face of imminent danger.