Bridge Over Troubled Waters
March 9, 2006
In her early '70s tune "Big Yellow Taxi", Joni Mitchell sings, "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone?" In this vein, the cruising community at times can be accused of assuming life in paradise will continue uninterrupted, blissfully ignoring any storm signals on the horizon. It's then always a big shock when an unpleasant change occurs, even if it was perfectly predictable to anyone who was paying attention to local events. The problem appears to be more prevalent wherever large numbers of cruisers congregate. We've observed that at a certain point, there's a tendency for cruisers to focus their attention inwards on their own floating society and not notice what's happening just beyond the anchorage.
We're now in George Town, the principal town in the Exuma Island chain in the southern Bahamas. The annual cruising regatta is underway and the number of transient boats has peaked; we're sharing the anchorage in cosy company with a mere 400 or so other cruising boats. When we first arrived last month and were stretching our legs on shore, we noticed an official looking sign on the road coming into George Town announcing that the bridge in the centre of town was to be closed for major reconstruction in two days, on February 16th. We stopped dead in our tracks; surely that had to be a mistake! George Town is built up on either side of a one-way road that encircles a small saltwater pond grandly named Lake Victoria. The lake is joined to the outside harbour by a narrow channel cut into the limestone rock -- a channel so narrow that dinghies must enter or leave the lake in single file, with inbound traffic having the right of way. The bridge in question spans this channel; it's one lane wide and less than 20 feet long.
We stared at the sign and tried to imagine what would happen if the bridge were ripped up. The town would be effectively cut in half. The bridge is in the middle of its commercial core. Vehicles and pedestrians presumably would have to circle the entire lake against the normal traffic flow to get from a business on one side of the channel to one 50 feet away on the opposite side. Many of the businesses are served by docks that line the circumference of the lake. Their water access would be eliminated once work on the bridge started and the channel was closed. And the people most affected by such a closure would be the cruisers anchored out in the harbour. Virtually all cruisers bring their dinghies under the bridge and into the lake to get water, fuel, and other supplies. The dinghy dock of choice is owned by the town's major supermarket, Exuma Markets. There are often lineups for the free reverse osmosis water that's dispensed from a tap on the dock.
We questioned some of the locals about the pending bridge work and received conflicting responses. One young man lounging on the bridge vehemently declared, "It's never going to happen!" The service station attendant across the street countered, "Of course the bridge is going to be rebuilt, it's long overdue." When we raised the topic with our fellow cruisers, however, no one was aware it was even under consideration.
February 16th came and went with no sign of activity on the bridge. Maybe the sign WAS a mistake. The next morning, there was a brief announcement on the VHF radio that there was going to be a public meeting the following Monday to discuss the bridge project. Cruisers were invited to attend and the local tourism office would provide free bus transportation to the community resource centre where the meeting was going to be held.
On Monday morning David was in front of the tourism office at the appointed time. There was only one other person waiting for the bus: our friend John from "Kittiwake". The bus driver delayed departing in order to accommodate any latecomers. John yelled at every cruiser who passed on the street, telling them they should attend the meeting. For all his efforts he mostly got blank stares. No one knew about the meeting and everyone was too occupied with their errands in town to attend. After half an hour, David and John boarded the bus and were taken to the resource centre, about a ten minute drive.
There was one other cruiser at the meeting, Don from "Dark And Stormy", who had arranged his own transportation. Don is this year's chairman of the cruising regatta organizing committee, making him the ex-officio "mayor" of the George Town cruising community. Most of the others in the audience were local businessmen, including a few ex-pat North Americans. At the head table were a number of officials from the Ministry of Works and a couple of representatives from the engineering firm that was contracted to rebuild the bridge.
It was clear that the folks at the front of the hall weren't too enthusiastic about the meeting. Apparently it had been organized at the insistence of the local businessmen and political representatives. A stern looking woman named Melanie Roach quickly took control of the proceedings. She was introduced as the Director of the Ministry of Works from Nassau. Ms Roach declared, "Our main concern is the safety of the bridge and our objective is to replace it as quickly as possible with no delays."
Reg Smith, the chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce agreed that the bridge should be replaced because of its deteriorated condition, but questioned the timing. He said, "When we met about the bridge project last summer, you asked us when would be the best time to do the work and we told you in the fall when we have few visitors. We told you the absolute worse time would be during peak season in February and March. We thought that the date had been set for October 10th. Nothing happened in October and suddenly, with one week's warning, we're told the reconstruction is going to happen exactly when we told you not to do it!"
Basil Minns, owner of Minns Watersports on Lake Victoria explained that he was a former chairman of the local Port Authority. He said, "We first proposed that the bridge be replaced back in 1994; this is not a new issue. I can't rent my powerboats if there's no water access to my dock. In October, when work was supposed to be done on the bridge, I typically rent two boats a day. Now, all 18 of my boats are booked for every day of the week."
Several businessmen stressed how important it was for visiting cruisers to have unimpeded access to Lake Victoria. Don elaborated, noting that at this time of the year 200 dinghies enter and leave the lake on any given day. John added that he had had a medical incident last year and he would not have been able to get to the health clinic in town as quickly as he had if the entrance to the lake had been blocked.
The head table didn't seem to have a clear explanation of why the October 10th construction date had somehow lapsed to February 16th. Bradley Armbrister, the assistant administrator for Exuma, stated that the local government office was only made aware of the delayed commencement date when he saw the road sign along with everyone else. The Ministry of Works people began to feel the heat. After about half an hour, Ms Roach hinted she might relent. Warning that the bridge could collapse at any minute, she allowed that it might be possible to reschedule its reconstruction for early May, but only if it was immediately barricaded to vehicular traffic.
Most audience members reluctantly accepted this compromise: in order to keep the lake open to boat traffic during peak season, they would suffer a prolonged period of disrupted road traffic. Michael Minns of Exuma Markets wondered, "Why is it now necessary to close the bridge to vehicles because construction is being delayed by another two months? We've already waited four months for the project to start and until now no one has suggested that the bridge had to be closed to vehicles. Has its condition deteriorated so much since October that it won't last until May?"
The meeting adjourned and Ms Roach promised to make a final decision within a day. David radioed the tourism office two days after the meeting and learned that the bridge project was scheduled to commence on May 8th. Two days ago, concrete barricades appeared on the road at either end of the bridge. Suddenly there was a lot of chatter on the radio. What's going on with the bridge? David shook his head. "Where were all of you two weeks ago when our fate was being decided? If it wasn't for the support of the local businessmen, we'd be beaching our dinghies and walking halfway across town to get water and groceries."
What could have been a disaster has been averted and life goes on in tropical paradise. But the bridge incident has reminded us of other things we take for granted. One immediate example is Volleyball Beach, a hundred yards from where we're currently anchored. The beach is the main social focus of the George Town cruising community. As we write, three volleyball courts are filled with energetic cruisers and several picnic tables under the surrounding casuarina trees are occupied by bridge and dominoes players. This evening, our friends Ron and Karen from "Sea Dancer" are organizing a rock 'n roll dance night. Next week, Eileen will be performing a music concert. A lot of cruisers assume it's THEIR beach because that's where they hang out.
In fact, the beach is owned by Kenneth Bowes (better known as KB) who operates the rustic beach bar "Chat 'N Chill". While we watch KB serving beer to the cruisers who enjoy his beach, we can't help but notice the expanding line of resorts and luxury homes under construction around the harbour. Pretty soon, Volleyball Beach will stand out because it will be the only piece of waterfront property that's NOT developed. Maybe. Keep in mind the concluding words to Ms Mitchell's song: "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."