Crewing on Tiota
While enjoying the laid-back winter season camaraderie in Exumas, Bahamas, in 1996, I received an urgent call from a friend in Puerto Rico. Klaus, a German out of Holland on Tiota, needed help. He was on a giant Atlantic circle — Holland to Brazil and back to Holland — and lost his crew for the San Juan to George Town leg. With nothing but time on my hands, I gladly volunteered for the voyage. It was a wonderful chance to return to the beautiful Tiota, a classic 38-foot Ohlsson, after our Scandinavian and Russian adventure two years earlier.
I looked forward to a 700-mile sail with short stops in the Dominican Republic, Turks and Caicos, and three of the outlying Bahamian Islands. The winds were favorable, and of course it was much warmer than our previous arctic excursion. There was no need for fleece-lined underwear and we did not have to fire-up Tiota’s cabin heater.
San Juan felt more like a foreign country than a part of the U.S.A. I had a hard time finding an English speaking radio station. We left shortly after my arrival for Luperon in the Dominican Republic. We chose this small coastal village for its well-protected anchorage. We found a surprisingly good restaurant and saw glimpses of a middle class midst the pigs and chickens wandering the town’s main street. The next stop was the island of West Caicos, a desolate looking uninhabited national park. We stayed on board and toasted the view from the anchorage with a good wine.
As always life on board Tiota was basic and well organized with old fashioned hanked-on sails and elegant European-styled dining. Klaus and I managed to review all the world’s important problems as we lounged in the spacious mahogany and teak-lined cockpit under the balmy Caribbean sky. In his retirement, Klaus has gone back to Leiden University and started on a philosophy degree to top off a doctorate in chemistry and an aerospace background at NASA and ESA. Naturally, his recent studies contributed greatly to our wide ranging conversations―we thought, therefore we were.
I met an Australian ‘round the world sailor in Luperon and asked him where he was headed. “U.S.A.” was his instant and unhesitating response. “I’m tired of third world countries. Too much of a hassle.”
I understood how he felt. I was also eager to get back.
Mayaguana, Bahamas, has a small village with two restaurants. One was recently burned down and the other looked abandoned. However, we were able to find potatoes and cooked aboard. Rum Cay, Bahamas, is a real jewel in the out islands. A young Florida couple (she a willowy blond hostess and he a dark ponytailed chef), along with a Bahamian partner, opened an excellent restaurant and bar in conjunction with a small marina. It’s a place well worth a return visit someday. Conception Island, Bahamas, is an uninhabited national park and a restful stopover before the last day-sail into George Town and back to my boat.
I bid Tiota farewell and readied Sabra for a return voyage to Florida. Before leaving George Town, I had one more thing to do. Christl had previously picked up an old conch shell on a deserted beach as a souvenir to take back to Germany. On her return, the Munich airport customs official inspected her luggage and found the shell. The official said it was an endangered animal and confiscated it. She pleaded, explaining that it was already dead and had been for some time. He insisted on a letter from Bahamian customs verifying the origin of the conch shell. I was asked to get the letter.
When I related the story to the George Town customs official, he couldn’t stop laughing.
“Endangered!” he laughed.
The queen conch, Strombus gigas, is threatened―listed as a Category II animal on the worldwide CITES list (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora)―but you wouldn’t know it in the Bahamas. There are mountains of conch shells strewn all over the islands. It’s a staple food for both natives and tourists: conch chowder, conch fritters, conch steak, conch salad, conch burgers . . . . Smiling, I repeated my urgent need for a letter.
When he stopped laughing, he asked, “How do I know what she brought into Germany?”
“If I go out the door to the beach and pick up a conch shell, will you give me a letter?”
I came back in a few minutes. He was still shaking his head in disbelief, but he slowly prepared a hand written, official letter:
To Whom it May Concern:
The above mentioned item is a certified good for export from the Bahamas.
The letter was signed and stamped by Bahamas Customs. He was still grinning and shaking his head as I left the office. I forwarded the letter to Germany (naturally, with a conch postage stamp).
It was time to pick up Sabra’s well dug-in anchor and head home.