An Island Story

By Tom Neale, 8/3/2012


Tom Neale's logs have a new name and home on BoatUS Magazine. We know Tom has a loyal and devoted readership, so we wanted to share his tips and insights with an even bigger audience! For the latest articles, click here for Onboard With Tom Neale.

The ancient island freighter set out from Miami with a load of hope. (Yes, I meant to say, “hope”---as with an “h”, not a “d” ) It carried hope of the farmers that their seed would come dry and that their breeding chickens would come uneaten, hope of the store owner that the cases of canned goods would arrive without rust and the oatmeal without weevils, hope of the bar owner that the bottles would come with seals unbroken and bourbon would not be tea and gin would not be water and scotch would not be….well, you know what scotch looks like…, and hope of the proud father that, when the freighter pulled alongside the quay, the brand new tiny little car he had purchased for his daughter would be noticed by all the village, but not by her. He wanted the village to be impressed but he wanted to surprise his daughter with this very special gift. He knew it would come perched conspicuously on the deck, because that’s the way cars came on the small freighters. He would have liked it to be covered with a tarp to protect it from the salt and to obscure its arrival at least long enough so that HE could be the one to tell his daughter, but he knew this was not the way of small freighters. “Tarps don’t do nuttin but blow away, mon.” So it isn’t clear whether, if he had been in Miami and had a say in the matter, he would have been entirely unhappy when the stevedores, ever mindful of finding extra space on deck to cram in extra stuff, decided to store a huge commercial sized inflatable tender on top of the car.

Island Freighters in Nassau.
This was an old tender, with a soft bottom. It was large enough to serve as a tarp, but they stored it fully inflated. It was destined to go to a rich man on a privately owned island. They would stop there early in the trip and the freighter’s captain knew that it would therefore be offloaded before the car’s new owner ever saw the car or had a clue that he’d loaded a big inflatable on its roof. True, the captain could have ordered the crew to let the air out of the inflatable–it would have taken much less space this way. But the new owner, a man prone to giving tips, wanted it to come in blown up and ready to go, and men prone to giving tips are men of great importance. Besides, thought the captain, it would take a long time and a lot of air to fill those tubes once they were flat–and the crew had better things to do, although he didn’t have any better things specifically in mind when he approved the loading.

He did have in mind the numerous spots of soft metal down in the bilge hull, some covered with cement and some showing signs of serious seepage which would get worse in the next blow. The hull of his ship, like so many others that he had known, was of such of a state of affairs that a large inflated tender, especially one as large as this, was always something to be desired. He had even surreptitiously checked the numbers on the plate tacked to the battered transom, and found that it could more than amply accommodate his crew. It could even accommodate the car, he noticed. Its weight fell well within its parameters. He had it lashed onto the car’s roof, right side up. True, a heavy rain might not drain out quickly enough and “mash up de roof” just a bit, but he didn’t expect rain. And a right side up big inflatable on his deck, ready to go at a moment’s notice, simply made him feel a little better. There would be less to do in an unexpected sinking and sinkings on island freighters like this were always expected.

He was right, about the rain. It didn’t come on that trip. But the wind was a different matter. A cold front came through much earlier than expected, and much stronger than expected, The dry northwest winds sweeping across the Old Bahamas Passage quickly humped up the Gulf Stream into crazy breaking seas mean and high enough to make any captain and crew smile in smug self congratulation at having a car-top tender ready to go.

Tom’s Tips About Finding Dinghies

1. Anytime you find a dinghy or other boat with no one aboard it is critically important to report it to the authorities immediately.

2. Even if there are no numbers or other identification on the boat, it may still indicate someone overboard, a larger boat sinking or some other serious issue.

Click Here for More Tips

But the ship rolled. “Oh Mon, She Rolling.” More and more she rolled, until it seemed as though she were deliberately trying to shake off all that extra weight that the crew had piled over the deck hatches, instead of under them where it belonged. It would have been better, in retrospect, to have chained the car to the deck, but this could have scarred the bright new paint on even a good day; and especially so if there were any shifting on a bad day. So there was very little paint scarred as the old freighter, with unmistakable intent, took an insistent roll and ridded itself of the car–and, of course, the huge inflatable.

The captain had been absolutely correct, at least in his calculations of the capacity of the inflatable. He and the crew watched in silence as the winds bore it away southeastward, bobbing solidly on the waves, demurely revealing, from time to time, the gleaming little car tied snugly underneath. Later, as the front passed away and the seas calmed down, the huge inflatable rode with much more stability, just floating flatly. To the casual observer there was little clue that a car hung underneath. If you’re cruising along far out in the islands and you see a huge inflatable floating free, you do take notice. It, in and of itself, is a load of hope. A huge inflatable can be worth a lot of money, especially in the out islands. So you approach rapidly, mindful of the rights of one who first gets a line on an abandoned boat--but you don’t approach too rapidly. Because you’re also mindful of the ways of the islands and of the fact that there could be drugs in the boat, there could be bodies, there could be pirates and there could be numerous other things that could really spoil your day. So as Cruiser John circled, he examined the inflatable closely with his binoculars. (I made up the name “John,” and, no, this wasn’t me.) If it wasn’t me, you might ask, how do you know about it? For years, on the beaches, in the bars, under the palm trees, I’ve been hearing this tale of a huge inflatable floating around with a little car underneath, because it fell of a freighter. And everyone has sworn to its truth. But that’s all of the story that I’ve ever heard, so it’s time for some imagination.

Cruiser John finally concluded that there were no problems and he came alongside, got a line aboard, and started to tow toward the nearest little village where he thought he might find a buyer. He noticed the two lines tightly encircling the dinghy, but didn’t give them much thought in his eagerness to claim his prize and get away. He knew he should have gotten on the VHF and SSB to contact the authorities, but there were no numbers on the huge dinghy and he didn’t always do what he “should do” anyway. The tow proved to be particularly slow.

I imagine that it was so slow that he occasionally looked astern wondering what was wrong. I imagine also that at some crest in the waves, the burdened tender tipped enough to reveal that tiny shiny car underneath. And I imagine that Cruiser John probably begin to wish he’d never had a drink before because he was surely having hallucinations. Did he cut the car loose and let it plummet thousands of feet to the bottom, anxious to save the tender? Did he continue the slow tow and cut the car loose in shallow water where it would be, for many years, his own personal lobster home? Or did he happen to encounter a local patrol boat who turned him into customs for not having declared the tender and car---even though the car wouldn’t start? I haven’t a clue. But it’s one of many stories floating around in the islands…like you and me.



Boating and water sports involve risk. Any comments herein should be followed at your own risk. You assume all responsibility for risk or injury to yourself or others. Any person or entity that uses this information in any way, as a condition of that use, agrees to waive and does waive and also hold authors harmless from any and all claims which may arise from or be related to that use.