As this story unfolds, you will see that I knew little about the Island of Bimini in the Bahamas when I first went there. Allow me to tell you a bit about it before I tell my story.
Bimini is a small island some 50 miles east of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. For 325 years–until 1973–it and all of the Bahamian Islands had been ruled by the British. It’s entire economy, except for a couple of US research operations, was dependent on tourism, and tourism was dependent on visiting yachts and big-game fishing. The population of Bimini was predominantly black and poor. They lived off the sea and imported goods, often even fresh water brought in by barge from the U.S.
My friend, Ebbie LeMaster, owned a 36-foot wood-hull sports fisherman that he took to Bimini each spring and left there until hurricane season. When I was invited to visit, Ebbie and his young family were staying on the boat, so I was to stay at the somewhat famous “Compleat Angler Hotel”. It was a very old hotel owned by the widow of a former governor of the Bahamas. It reeked of Britain with a dark paneled lobby and bar. Hemingway had stayed there, often pursuing his love of big-game fishing and gin. There was a great collection of old photographs of him in the bar.
I flew from Jacksonville to Ft. Lauderdale, and then took a small plane to South Bimini, where the airstrip was located. The early sixties were when people still dressed up to fly. I wore a blazer and tie. I got the first clue that I was overdressed when I boarded the little toy eight-seater plane. The other passengers were islanders returning home, loaded down with shopping bags. The couple of fishermen who had started their vacation early in the airport bar gave me a strange look. They were dressed as I should have been–in khaki shorts, shirts and Topsiders.
After flying over some of the bluest water I had ever seen, we came in for a landing on what looked like a very short runway. At both ends of the runway were several crashed planes left to rust. As I stepped onto the broken-up asphalt, I immediately felt even more foolish. Waiting for us was a rusty Ford van with only a driver’s side door. It was to take us over a bumpy gravel road to a passenger ferry–past numerous abandoned cars, small brightly painted houses and lots of yard chickens.
Bimini is really two small islands separated by a long bay. The ferry took us to the North island where the marinas, hotels and restaurants were. By this time, I had taken my tie off, my blazer was over my arm, and I had come to understand this was no picture-book island.
As we got close to the ferry dock, several of my fellow passengers stood up and started clapping. A fine-looking fishing yacht was passing and, standing in the stern, was Adam Clayton Powell Jr.–waving and saying “Keep the faith, Baby.” If you don’t remember Congressman Powell, he was a Black Baptist preacher who also represented Harlem in the House of Representatives for almost thirty years. A lot of people in the public eye liked Bimini. It was an excellent getaway–with no press, great fishing and nights of partying.
My friends met me at the dock and we walked across the King’s Highway to the hotel. The island was no more than three or four blocks wide and only had two roads that ran its length from north to south–maybe two miles. They were one-lane roads named the King’s Highway and the Queen’s Highway. There were no more than four or five cars and just a few more motor bikes.
There was only a small strip of beach–on the westside with gin-clear water. A couple of the hotels had saltwater pools, but this was not a fancy resort island–it was a fishing island. The Gulf Stream, where the big fish were, was no further than a few hundred yards offshore.
Serious fishermen came from all over the world to these waters and the yachts were magnificent fishing machines. These sportsmen fished hard all day, and drank hard well into the night recounting stories of the “big ones.”
I loved being on the boat, and after Ebbie bought a new 38-foot Pacemaker, I became his first mate, making many trips to fish off Palm Beach, the Keys and, always my favorite, Bimini. I never did like being a part of catching large fish. To me it was like shooting an Elephant–it made no sense. Now, Bone fishing is another story! They were plentiful on the Mangrove flats around the island. Going after them combined hunting and fishing, using light tackle from a small boat or wading in knee-deep water.
Following 1973, when the Bahamas declared independence from Britain, and the increase of the drug trade, all of the islands went through major changes–not for the good. Bimini, being only fifty miles from the Florida coast, was hit particularly hard. Safety became a big and troubling issue.
We never went back–that is, by boat–but in my memories, I go there often.
Thanks to all for wearing your masks.