No Footprints in the Sand

Commanding a U-boat in the Uninhabited Bahamas

palm trees

Palm trees, Michelle, and our red and yellow kayaks on a gorgeous desert island.

To avoid any embarrassment, the details of the Great Submarine Event of 2014 should probably be swept quietly under the carpet. Don’t get me wrong, I obsess over details like proper punctuation, proper place settings, and, oh you know, the proper sinking of a boat. It’s just that I’m a big picture kind of guy that sweats the small stuff for a few hours, mops them off the brow, and then lets them go forever, except unfortunately during occasional bouts of 3 a.m. guilt when I’m writing memoirs. So if at 3 a.m. I discover a detail (say, a slowly sinking boat) that has been sticking out conspicuously at an odd angle for more than a day, then there’s something very important that needs either quick broom work, or if I’m feeling especially culpable, a little squinting and close scrutiny. One hopes that under a magnifying glass this odd-angled detail doesn’t resemble an unpleasant spider and isn’t unfortunately timed to sink during a civilized afternoon tea, but these things can happen.

kayaker

Michelle heads out to sea in search of an uninhabited island.

Of course, one key detail is that the water in the Bahamas is gorgeous. That definitely bears extra scrutiny, preferably from a hammock. And when you are visiting an out-of-the-way off-the-beaten-path kind of paradise of sun and sand, it’s common to seek out hammocks at the first possible opportunity. In fact, most people who fly into Bahamian airspace will pause, take a deep breath, toss aside their luggage and run willy-nilly for the nearest beach where they will briefly sip a cocktail with some kind of fruit on a stick that’s leaning salaciously out to the side, and then they will sigh, wiggle their toes into the warm sand and fall asleep under an umbrella while listening to the relaxing gentle surf. That’s most people.

Not so, Michelle and I.

Planned far in advance, we have calculated with rocket science precision that if we have no major delays on our red eye flight, then we can hitch a ride across the sleepy island, rush to the nearest put in, ditch clothes for swimsuits, load our kayaks with gusto, launch, and try not to fall asleep while briskly paddling away into the sunset. The goal is to goose our Quality Relaxation by flying all night and then hustling away from a very quiet backwater island. We have carefully devised a plan that will maximize Q. and R. by quickly removing us from a sunny paradise and with great exertion plop us into an even more relaxing backwater with even more remote sunshine and extra helpings of even better paradise. We want all the best kind of frosting on our brief vacation cake, and we are willing to forgo sleep to make it happen.

kayaker by uninhabited cay

Michelle finds a deserted island in the Bahamas. Oh my.

small uninhabited cay

Sunset over a small uninhabited cay in the Bahamas. It’s a big blue-water Eden.

The lack of sleep, of course, leads to a curious decision making process known occasionally as “Really Daft Stuff” and sometimes in more refined circles as “idiocy.” In short, our decisions—ok, my really daft decisions—will require much squinting and a careful raking over at a later date. I’d hire an accountant to investigate those line-item details for me, but Michelle knows all that book-keeping stuff inside and out, so she can identify the idiocy on my behalf.

Anyhoo, for the moment I’m enjoying my power as a small god of kayaking in a big blue-water Eden. This trip is going to be Awesome. I whistle a little tune, admire the humid silky heat hovering over the tantalizing calm water, and pass along some divine wisdom to Michelle who has spent limited time in a sea kayak and needs some assistance placing items in the hold. No, she’s not a novice or we wouldn’t be launching out across the Atlantic in search of deserted islands. She has spent lots and lots of time in a sit-on-top kayak, but according to the rule book, that’s rookie stuff. The real deal has waterproof holds, spray skirts, seat adjustments, rudders, pedals for turning the rudders, pulleys for lowering the rudders, extra paddles, sponges, bilge pumps, throw bags, tide charts, nautical charts, rules of twelfths, and lots of confusing ropes and bungees and lines running back and forth along the hull. If you’ve taken a red eye from Denver, this stuff looks complicated.

Michelle absently snaps at a complicated bungee attached to the hard kayak shell while I toss a three-gallon bag of water toward her boat. There are fifteen of these dromedary bags, two duffels, two byzantine sea kayaks, and very sadly only one roll of duct tape which Michelle has thoughtfully balanced on the bungee that holds my tide charts in place.

I toss more gear.

Michelle squints inside the dark cargo space, eyeballs the two large duffels and fifteen dromedaries with a certain cynicism, and says, “That’s going to fit in here?”

“Oh yeah, no problem. Just put the small stuff in the front.”

Dumping our gear into the white sand, she raises an eyebrow, places hands on hips and demands what sounds like a detailed manifest and loading order. On a sleepy backwater paradise a thousand miles from the nearest Nassau or Freeport, the effect is jarring. She wants spreadsheets and timetables and gear agendas. Things should be properly aligned in the sand. A loudly squawking crew of FP&A seagull accountants should be double-checking forms and ensuring that projected kayak revenues will match our quarterly island-paradise earnings. In fact, all she actually said was, “Uh, ok.”

pink sand beach

Sunrise on a quiet pink-sand beach in the Bahamas. The subtle pink is from offshore corals that break apart and color the sand.

But I’m a bad kayaking mentor. I didn’t really pay attention to the “uh” part and focused on the “ok”. She’s an exceptionally smart woman and athletically gifted, so I assume she will figure it all out. Consumed with this and that, and the proper slathering of sunscreen on my not-so-god-like abs, I ignore the “uh” and instead admire the hypnotizing blue water and have an Idea.

It’s a defining idea. An idea that will change the course of our trip. No, it’s not a good idea, and in my defense it is fueled by energy bars, Miami Airport breakfast burritos, bad Lipton tea, and a screaming infant on a red-eye flight. I blame it mostly on the infant. They should be banned.

So although it will haunt me later, I have this brainstorm that putting all of the dromedaries in the front of my pretty yellow sea kayak will be a great idea. I’m in a hurry, Michelle has demanded FP&A seagulls, and I’ve got like 45 gallons of potable water to stash. I’m thinking that this great idea will make Michelle’s first day of paddling a little easier. I’ll have all the weight, and she can paddle along feather-like, carefree and whimsical, all the while cruising just off my bow where I can keep a watchful eye on her progress during the deeper channel crossings.

Rock, water, sky

Rock, water, and sky.

Mangrove at sunset

A mangrove tree at sunset, just off the shore of an uninhabited island in the Bahamas.

The front of a sea kayak is an awkward place. It’s a pointy Bermuda-Triangle-shaped space that can’t accommodate anything large and forever swallows anything small. Anyone who has wrestled with a sea kayak is familiar with this forbidden zone. You can shove tent stakes and tent poles and sandals and odds and ends up into that tiny space, but they get jammed and you can never get them back out. They stay forever just out of reach of your fingertips. You can angrily turn your kayak on end and shake vigorously. You can cry and stomp around and contemplate sawing off the front end of your boat so you can get those stakes and set up the damn tent before the thunderstorm hits, but it’s useless. Your gear is going to remain in the pointy Bermuda Triangle forever.

But water, I think cleverly, is something the Bermuda Triangle can’t swallow. These Teflon-like nylon dromedary bags will just kind of slide up there and then slither back out. Magic, it’s going to be magic. Man oh man will Michelle be impressed, and that’s important when you plan to spend a week on an uninhabited island paradise with warm blue water, white sand beaches, and your bikini-clad sweetheart just waiting to see what a clever boy you are.

So I puff up slightly and start cleverly jamming those bags up into the front of the kayak.

“Umm,” says Michelle, “didn’t you tell me that the weight needs to be balanced?”

“Hmm? Oh, yeah, be sure to balance your weight. But don’t stress the details. We can sort out our gear tomorrow when we’re not in a hurry.”

I hum a little tune inspired by some honeybees and a few incipient rain clouds on the horizon. It’s a good day, and I only pause my jaunty refrain because I need all my strength to wrangle dromedary number 14 into the kayak.

study in pink and blue

Study in blue to pink. The blue water of the Bahamas fades into one of its famous pink sand beaches.

shallow water study

Shallow waters study. Taken from a few feet off the beach in the shallow waters of an uninhabited island, a long exposure highlights the abstract ever-changing colors of the Bahamas. White sand lies under the water near shore. The color turns pastel blue where the shallows drop into deeper water.

Michelle wisely ignores me and concentrates on what she learned about sea kayaking from the internet. She puts on her spray skirt, adjusts, and puts it on again this time right side up. One paddle goes in her hand, and one emergency paddle is snapped beneath a bungee, then a different bungee, then a third more appropriate bungee. One life jacket is put on backwards, and one life jacket is reversed. She battens down the hatches. They pop open. She battens down the hatches with more vim and vigor and threatens duct tape for any noncompliance. She plops into the boat and spends fifteen minutes cursing the spray skirt that won’t fit over the lip of the cockpit. There follows significant brawling with the skirt. Reluctantly, it snaps into place, sealing her into the cockpit. And she’s grounded. Oops. Always better to get the boat into the water first.

I’m a nice guy and I want to impress, so I push her off the beach and spare her the agony of Round Two with the spray skirt. Everybody hates those spray skirts.

“They’re stuck,” she says.

“What do you mean they’re stuck?”

“The pedals won’t move.”

“The pedals won’t move?” I’m confused and hope that repeating everything will clarify the situation.

“They’re stuck.” she clarifies.

I test mine. Pressing my left foot on the left pedal, my boat rotates left. Pressing the right, I rotate satisfyingly to the right.

“Huh. Well, there’s nowhere to land. Tide’s pushing us out, so let’s fix it tomorrow.”

“How do I turn?”

“Normal way with the paddle.”

“But the waves seem kind of big for that.”

Whoa, they do seem big, and so do the clouds. More importantly I’m noticing something funny up near the front of my boat. As the waves are rising, the boat appears to be sinking. Huh. It’s riding kind of low at the bow. Well, these waves will disappear soon because it’s the Bahamas, right? Flat pleasant water on the lee side of the islands… No big deal.

lone rock

Lone rock at dusk in the amazingly colorful waters of the Bahamas.

The waves get bigger and choppier. I check the chart and spot our palm-covered desert island out in the far distance.

“Hey Michelle?”

“Yeah?” Slight annoyance in her voice.

“You’re drifting away. Can you pick up the pace? The waves are getting big.”

From behind me I hear loud muttering about quarterly this-and-that and FP&A analysis of relaxation returns based on kayaking investments for deep channel open water crossings. What she really said was, “Uh, ok.”

Halfway to the island, over the deepest part of the channel and a really long ways from anywhere whatsoever, I recognize a critical detail sticking out conspicuously at an odd angle from reality. This critical nugget indicates that I’m piloting a yellow submarine and not a yellow kayak as perhaps reasonably expected. The color is important because I’m now fighting a Beatles inspired ear bug each time I get a face full of water. The submarine part is important because the seriously overweight pointy-Bermuda-Triangle nose of my boat is going through each two-foot wave, not over. The nose appears overtaxed as if having recently gone twelve rounds with a red-eye-flying infant, or perhaps as if 45 gallons of water were stuffed into the bow. Hypothetically of course, because who would load cargo like that? Or put an infant on a red eye? That’s really daft stuff.

Oh look! I’m now going straight through enormous four-foot waves. If like most people you don’t think four-foot waves sound enormous, and if like most people you are now concluding that I’m a total lily-livered weenie, may I suggest that you try four-foot choppy seas in what turns out to be a yellow submarine rather than the reasonably expected yellow kayak? And do this in open water in the middle of freakin’ nowhere in the Atlantic Ocean while worrying about your kind-of-new-to-the-relaxing-sport-of-kayaking wife whose pedals are apparently stuck. If that’s not enough, then while you are sitting in said yellow submarine, be sure to look up and realize with some measure of terror that your wife’s boat is almost two feet over your head at the crest of each wave and preparing to crash down on your U-boat like a tipsy torpedo. Incidentally, at the crest of each wave, just before my face goes into the water, I can now see that her hovering red kayak has a hole in the side, not too big, but just big enough to require lots and lots of duct tape.

Life as a U-boat captain is stressful. Between dives you have to grab at the duct tape still miraculously balanced on the hull and just barely kissed and ever so gently held in place by one of the bungees. Worse, because I’m dealing with my own inadequacies as a sub commander, I can’t really reach out to help semi-novice Michelle who is flying over my head half the time and drifting out to sea the other half. It is a full-on naval battle with no coordination whatsoever between the inept skipper and the freshly minted seaman recruit.

Orchid

Orchid in the Bahamas.

I have vague recollections of getting hit by waves from two directions at once. Dim memories of Michelle shouting unintelligible questions. Huge physical and mental exertion, lots of water in the boats, massive floundering, and some seriously inappropriate maledictions which were not at all in-line with our intention to beach on an Eden. I’ve kayaked with whales and I’ve even kayaked with grizzlies, but I’ve never tried to kayak with a beginner through a heaving wilderness like this. My vague recollections are of inadequacy, and for the sake of ego some details are best left forgotten. Regardless, we limp onto our deserted island, and I have to admire Michelle who is still upright only because she is a phenomenally gifted athlete.

“Cookie?” I offer as she paddles up after me.

“Aaaaaaaauuuuuuuuugh!” screams the gifted athlete, ramming her boat onto the shore, jumping out, kneeling on the sand, and thanking the gods (certainly not me). Setting her lips in a tight little line, she glances accusingly at me and my submarine, and between clenched teeth informs me that this is not the relaxing trip she had been promised. Tail between legs, I note that the cookie has chocolate and the mood lightens a smidgen. I point out that there are no footprints in the sand, and she agrees that the desert island is a nice touch. I give her a small kiss and draw attention to a palm tree where we can set up the tent, and she is happy with that choice.

As she unloads the tent and wrestles with the stakes stuck in the Bermuda Triangle, she complains of her totally exhausted legs. Odd. Sea kayaking is mostly in your core and your arms, but in seas like that, I suppose it’s possible for all four limbs and even your pinky toes to be wiped out.

I tape over the hole in her hull, check the pedals, and all is fine.

“Sooooo, how come the pedals were stuck?” I ask.

“I really don’t know. I was pressing both as hard as I could.”

“Both?”

“Both.”

“At the same time?”

“Yeah… Why?”

I have played for years at being a college professor, and my inadequacies as an instructor are suddenly laid bare for me on a small desert island a million miles from the nearest classroom. I laugh, and I’m lucky I’m not instantly banished to sleep on the sofa, but Michelle has never made me do that, and besides, the tent is small with no room for a couch, microwave, or TV. We’re alone in the wilderness on an uninhabited island under a palm tree with no electronic gizmos or sofas or creature comforts. I hold Michelle tight until she wriggles free, probably dreaming about pressing only one pedal at a time. The sand is exquisitely soft, and for the first time in months, I sleep wonderfully.

common night hawk

A common nighthawk rests on the warm soft sand of a Bahamas beach.

crab

A giant land crab with amazing and vibrant colors. At certain times of the year, crabs by the thousands migrate out of the Bahamian woods and into the ocean. We had hoped to relax on this beach, but that wasn’t an option. This crab refused to let us pass, and another chased us as we left.