End of the Line
April 8, 2004
There were about 300 boats anchored in George Town in the Exumas when we left there a couple of weeks ago; it took us two days to reach the Jumentos archipelago. During the past week, we sailed the hundred mile length of the Jumentos and encountered eight other cruising boats, plus a handful of Bahamian fishing boats. Not exactly crowded. Now we're at the end of the line: Ragged Island, population 80, the only inhabited island in the entire chain. It seems like the world ends here. For all of the attention that they get from the government in Nassau, the inhabitants of this small outpost sometimes feel they've actually fallen off the edge.
The Jumentos have not always been a forgotten place. On some of the islands, overgrown stone walls, collapsed buildings, and wild goats are evidence of past attempts to settle the bleak wilderness. Up until the 1950's, Duncan Town on Ragged Island was an official port of entry, had a full time commissioner, and traded salt with Cuba and Haiti; its population peaked at around 500. Trade with Cuba ended after Castro came to power, the port lost its official designation, and the entrance channel began to silt in.
Now the salt flats extending below the town lie idle, no longer used for commercial purposes. Many of the houses are abandoned. Twelve children attend the one-room elementary school. Older kids go to Nassau for high school. Most don't return; they constitute the island's missing generation. Continued population decline seems inevitable.
Yesterday, while checking our e-mail at the telephone office, we asked the friendly worker Leander about the changes she's seen on the island since being born here 50 years ago. "Losing the commissioner and our port status was a big blow, everything started to decline after that," Leander explained. "Now the local administrator comes in one day a month to do official business. But our biggest problem is the channel not being dredged. The weekly mailboat anchors off and we have to take our own boats out to it to get our supplies. We're paying the mailboat for dock to dock service, but there's no dock!" Building supplies in particular are difficult to bring in; in our walking tour of the town we passed several half completed structures that were on hold pending another shipment of lumber or cement.
We had walked a mile into town from where we had beached the dinghy on the island's south bay and hadn't met a single vehicle. On our trek back, we crested a hill to find a battered pick up truck bouncing towards us. It shuddered to a stop. The driver seemed as surprised to see a couple of strangers on the road as we were to see him. "You guys must be from one of the boats anchored in the bay," he said. "I'm Percy; why don't you visit my place on the beach tomorrow morning and I'll show you around?"
When we went ashore after breakfast this morning, Percy was waiting for us under the casuarina trees on the beach. We pulled the dinghy up beside two derelict wood fishing boats. Hidden from view by the trees were two structures: one didn't have a roof and the other, believe it or not, had an airplane for a roof! Percy explained that he used to operate a beach resort, but a fire had seriously damaged the main building. He's now rebuilt its interior and only has the roof left to replace. Eventually, he'd like to add five more rooms. The other building is the Eagle's Nest bar, closed for now because it's being used to store the materials required to reconstruct the beach house. We asked the obvious question: How did the plane get on the bar's roof?
"It's a DC3 that overshot the island's airstrip and landed in the marsh at the end. I got the salvage contract to clear it out of the way. I asked if I could keep the plane, the administrator agreed, and I hauled it over here by propping the nose on top of my truck and carrying the tail in the bucket of a back-hoe. I had to take the wings off to get it between the trees." He's hoping he can buy some old seats at an auction and figures it'll be a big attraction once he's installed a couple of video games in the cockpit.
Percy also owns Jamaica Cay, a small island 35 miles to the north. He's got even bigger plans for its future: several tourist cottages, a restaurant, bar, gift shop, two swimming pools, tennis courts, and a mini golf course. "I'm looking to create a nudist colony type environment aimed at the high end market." He admitted it's taken some time to develop the site, but said he hopes the first phase will open this fall. "Getting building materials down here is a real challenge, but I'm getting there."
We confessed we were a bit puzzled by Percy's ambitious plans given the sense of abandonment that seems to permeate the islands. He immediately brightened up. "This area has a great future. We have two of the best legal businesses possible, fishing and tourism. A fisherman can make $100,000 a year here. We're at the gateway to Cuba, it's only 60 miles away. When Cuba opens up, there will be all kinds of boat traffic through here. All we have to do is build the facilities and people will stop. I tell the other islanders that's what they should be doing with their money."
We looked at the roofless beach house, the bar with a slightly crunched airplane on top of it, and the beached fishing boats. The mile wide bay was empty except for "Little Gidding" and "Mars", a French sailboat with a young couple and their two sons on board. We plan to leave for Cuba tonight in order to make our landfall at Puerto de Vita in the morning light. "Mars" is going to follow as soon as they get a weather window that will take them all the way to Havana. We tried to imagine another George Town on Ragged Island. David turned to Percy. "We'll have a couple of cold beer at the Eagle's Nest the next time we come through," he promised.