Call For a Tow

The Office in the Islands

By Tom Neale, 7/7/2014


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.

In the far gone good ol' days of Bahamas cruising I used to love the fact that I did my work from my boat, not from an office in the US. But I soon realized that even in the Bahamas I had to go to an office. It just wasn't quite the same.

If you had to make a telephone call back in the day you usually had to find a booth on an island or go to what we called a BATELCO office. I preferred the latter, although there were a few problems.

First, the islands didn't have BATELCO offices unless there was also a village on the island. You had to sail to one that did. This was usually easy to figure out because you could see a BATELCO tower on the island which meant that there might be a station there ... or there might not. Once you landed at the island the station was usually easy to find because of three attributes. They were on the top of a hill, they were painted pink and there was a huge tower in the yard. Unlike the island telephone booths, they weren't open all the time (there did seem to be a lot of holidays and lunch breaks) but then often the booths didn't work even though they were open. (Sometimes the booth door was stuck shut.)

Modern BTC Office in the Islands
Modern BTC Office in the Islands.

But when you anchored off an island that hopefully had a telephone office, you'd launch your dinghy, motor or row in to the island, walk up the hill and go inside to the wonderfully air conditioned little room. (If the air condoo was broken for the day the telephone people generally took holiday.) If the air condoo was working, you'd walk right in and say hello to all the friends and neighbors sitting in the chairs around the room, waiting for their turn to call, not to mention enjoying the air conditioning. Sometimes at a few of these phone offices there were other opportunities afoot while you were waiting. I remember one in which someone also sold spectacular Easter Bonnets in season and sometimes out of season. This sometimes caused a seating problem. You might not be able to sit on the chairs to the left and right of the ladies who had just bought the hats because the hats were often not only spectacularly beautiful, but spectacularly wide. But usually the folks were just enjoying the air conditioning, enjoying a chat and waiting for their turn to make a call, in that order.

Modern BTC Tower
Moderrn BTC Tower.

So you'd walk up to the desk and tell the lady the number you wanted to call. When your turn came she'd place the call and, if it went through, she'd tell you that your party was on the line. Then came the fun part; at least for everyone else. To make your call you just went to an old fashioned type of phone hanging on the wall and started talking. Every word you said was heard by every soul waiting in the chairs. If you walked into the building and there was no chatting among the folks in the chairs, you knew there was a good telephone conversation going on. Sometimes they were to banks or divorce lawyers or CPAs back in the states, sometimes they were to a spouse or boy or girl friend on the next island, sometimes it was even better…like maybe a divorce in California. And when your turn came there was nothing that you could do to mask your very personal conversation, because you ALWAYS had to SHOUT for there to be any chance of the system carrying your message. But unlike the booths, the doors didn't trap you in and there were seldom any goats or chickens. Never mind the large cockroaches.

Eventually, in the BATECO offices on the larger islands they built little rooms with the phones in them so that you had some semblance of privacy. When your turn came you sat in the room designated by the operator behind the window and waited for the phone to ring. Being directed to that little room really didn't mean that you were going to be soon talking to your party. It just meant that you were, in theory, one step closer. When the phone did finally ring, the theory was that the party you were calling was on the line. If it was someone else's party there were all sorts of opportunities for fun, frivolity and new friendships. Some of us actually looked forward to trying to make a call.

Tom's Tips
Tom's Tips About Island Communications

1. Whereas before there was often a question of whether you can call home from the islands, it's much more likely today.

2. Talk to your cell phone company about whether they have reciprocating service where you're going and whether your phone will work there.

3. Sometimes customer service personnel at US companies aren't very familiar with issues in the islands. You may have to call the phone service of the place you intend to visit.

4. WiFi hot spots, even from anchorages, are fairly common now. And there are boosters available that will improve your range for various types of communication. See, for example,

5. If you're really serious, satellite phones may be the answer, albeit an expensive answer. You can also rent these if the trip is to be short.

Click Here for More Tips

As mentioned above, "waiting" was always an operative word in the Bahamas, especially if it was waiting for communications. But in the meantime most folks usually just read. No, you didn't necessarily take a book. There was no need to. These were full service stations. Reading material was provided, and I don't mean golfing and home garden magazines spread on a waiting room table. The literature on the wall inside some of those booths was legendary. I asked an employee once why they hadn't cleaned the walls of the booth I had just exited and she said, "Oh, we haven't finished reading it yet."

But the crowning blow came when your call finally got through, after maybe a couple of days of trying, and somebody's secretary in the states, sitting with manicured nails at a plush desk in air conditioned luxury would say, "Oh Mr. So and So can't take your call now, he'll call you back later today." Of course, I had no number for a call back except for the number at the BATECO station. This meant that I'd have to sit at the BATELCO office all day hoping that he would actually call and that if he did, that the call would get through. Explanations to those secretaries were out of the question. It was like talking to a Martian about US politics.

If Mr. So and So didn't deem to call back that day (They're always busy people, you know) the entire day in paradise would be wasted and you'd have to try to waste another day tomorrow. If Mr. So and So did call back, and you hadn't stepped out for a beer, and the line didn't go dead, you could maybe actually transact your business, which inevitably required more calls or at least a faxed signature on something that he would have to fax to you.

As you can see, there is more to this story…but that's for another time. Suffice it to say, that if you go to the Bahamas today things WILL be much better. They don't even call it BATELCO now, its BTC. Things may be better, but I doubt that they're more fun.

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.