Dead Mans Cay

By Tom Neale, 7/28/2005


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We called it “Dead Man’s Cay.” It was a tiny jagged chunk of rock jutting out of Bahama waters, far far away from the US, from Nassau, or any other centers of population. Visitors who heard about it for the first time usually assumed that the name came from some old shipwreck, or maybe a pirate story. They were surprised to learn that the Cay hadn’t had that name for long. They were surprised to learn that the name hadn’t been inspired by just a dead man. It had been inspired by the discovery of a dead man and a dead woman.

Those who were around at the time said that a sailboat had been found drifting there, with the two bodies inside. It was reported that they had died of gunfire. It was not reported why. There was no indication of piracy as we understand it. Pirates hadn’t been reported in the area for a long time. It was also reported that the bodies disappeared soon after being discovered.

We weren’t hanging in that part of the islands when all this happened—whatever it was that happened. We came along some years later. But people still weren’t saying much about it even then. A man who saw the boat told us about it. He said he’d never forget that morning. But he also told us that people didn’t say much about it at the time either. Dead men don’t speak. Neither do live men, if they’re worried about staying that way—that was the implication that one could infer. But I don’t even know that anyone was worried about that. Perhaps it was just one of those things. Speculation is for camp fires on the beach. Speculation is for sitting around in the cockpit under a star filled sky with a glass of rum. Speculation and pirates and dead men in remote islands mix well.

In the not too distant past there had been much drug activity reported in the area. Again, this was before our time there, and we only know what we had heard under the stars and around the fires on the beaches. And so of course, when stories of the two bodies surfaced in the night, there was always speculation about this.

Scattered around this string of islands you’d often come upon the remains of a plane. Half buried in sand. A wing underwater, caught up in a reef. A large cargo plane half submerged, its lower environs now quiet and crawling with lobsters. You always wondered if there were skeletons nearby. You never looked. Or at least we didn’t. Some young people would have boats and houses and planes that we’d never be able to afford. You wondered, but you didn’t ask. But we consistently heard that it was all risky business. Had the people in the boat seen something? Were they in the business and had something gone down wrong? Were they trying to get in the business and fatally lacking in credentials? Were they innocents who became entrapped in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was there an explanation that no one had dreamed of? No one knew, and so far as I know, no one found out. But lots of people liked to speculate.

While some people think that the Bahamas are down in the Caribbean and that pirates are endemic, neither is the case. There are plenty of in-vogue experts who’ll tell us to think of pirates of the Caribbean as a great movie; nothing more. But you can’t brush off the risk of having trouble in paradise so easily, no matter what phraseology you use or what the nature of the crime.

About Remote Areas

1. Treat paradise like you would anywhere else. Don’t go into bad areas. You’ll usually know what’s a bad area if you listen to cruisers’ nets on ham and SSB radio, pay attention to the VHF and use common sense.

2. In remote areas it’s usually a good idea to travel and anchor with other known boats.

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There were two dead people in that sailboat. And apparently they did disappear—if we’re to believe what the people in the area—the people who saw it—were saying.

We passed by this little rocky island frequently in our dinghy. There was a good hole for fish nearby. Grouper liked to hang there, and so we did too. The water wasn’t more than 15 to 20 feet deep, but current would race around the rock when the ocean was moving onto or off of the Bahama Banks. It would gurgle as it rushed past the jagged perforated blades of limestone—not a place to bump with a boat in the night. Although we could have, working our way carefully between the sand bores, using the tide, we never took our mother ship there. But sometimes we anchored her nearby in more protected waters. This gave us an easy run for fishing. In hanging out around the area from time to time over the years, we never saw anything to make us exceptionally fearful, except the normal stuff of nature like storms, sharks, and barracuda excited by the smell of blood. Nor did we ever have the feeling that we were in an area where there had been a lot of unusual illegal activity. The local folks were wonderful people—like you find in most places in the world. Eventually people began talking about other things on the beach.

But back in the States at the time it happened, headlines shouted the “story” of this boat that had been found at what was to become known as Dead Man’s Cay. We heard people saying that they weren’t going cruising away from the coast that year. But do headlines ever shout the entire story?

Headlines out of south Florida, as I write this, speak of a body found face down in the water near the Bahia Mar. It’s one of the most well known, fanciest marinas you can find.

Coming into New York Harbor from the ocean one afternoon, we heard commercial vessels talking to each other—back and forth—back and forth-- about everyone in the harbor looking for a “floater.” It’s what they called a body.

Once when we were docked in a locked fenced-in area, we awoke in the morning to find muddy bare footprints around our decks. It was obvious that the person had stood for awhile looking down into the hatch where our young daughters had slept. I sleep very lightly, always sensitive to changes in the weather, the boat’s movement, and anything else unusual. But I never heard the intruder.

Once when we were tied up in the heart of a very fine city, we awoke as an intruder ran along our deck and started to launch our tender.

Once we were anchored in a beautiful river in a quiet peaceful part of the east coast. Mel was preparing Thanksgiving dinner. Some people pulled up on shore in a truck, got out, and started shooting at us with shotguns, hitting our rigging.

Once when we were tied up in a well known marina, a gang of teenagers swarmed down the docks, turned over a coke machine, damaged other boats and cut the bow lines to our boat. (A policeman at first said they thought maybe the lines had broken from the wind—which had not been blowing).

I have many more tales to tell. All of these I just mentioned happened in good cruising areas of the good ol’ USA. Just as with Dead Man’s Cay, I haven’t hesitated to return to these places.

The media and the tellers of stories would have us too frightened to do anything but stay in the safety of our homes glued to the TV news programs (or maybe all the advertisements in between the bits and pieces of real news). If you want to go cruising, be safe and be careful—there are bad guys out there, whether you call them “pirates,” or “thugs,” or whatever. But there are some bad guys in most places. It’s no reason to not live a good life. It’s no reason to not go cruising, if that’s a good life for you.

Copyright 2004-2005 Tom Neale