Archive for Sunday, September 7, 2008

Seaside vacation inspires youthful curiosity

September 7, 2008


My tattered, mildewed cruising guide to the Bahamas describes the Bight of Old Robinson as a "lonesome," "wonderful," "wild" and "strange" place. Those words have drawn me and my family to this obscure spot over the years on occasional visits to the Abacos.

The dictionary defines a bight as "a body of water bounded by a bend or curve in the shore of a sea or river." Old Robinson's bight is too shallow for a boat of any size, but a skiff can be anchored outside a narrow passage between rocky ledges. More than once, we've swam through that forbidding inlet in search of "blue holes," pools of deep water with subterranean connections to the ocean, supposedly teeming with beautiful fish.

We'd never found them before, because of faulty methodology and the fact that the place seems haunted and doesn't encourage lingering. This time our resourceful son studied the map carefully and swam away from the rest of us. Before long he was standing up on his flippers, waving. He'd found it. Suddenly, he was thrashing in the water and for a moment I feared he was being swallowed by a vortex. I swam - a little cautiously - to the rescue. When I reached him I realized that he'd only been diving to get a better look at the apparition beneath us: a deep, gaping, stone-walled hole in the sandy bottom that disgorged schools of enormous, gaudy fish.

The sun passed behind a cloud, transforming the blue hole into a black cavity. When the sun returned, it revealed rafts of gold and silver fish rising and falling on the shafts of light. The hole looked like some kind of intestinal organ, spiraling downward, ringed with ridges, suggesting the mythical Omphalos of Delphi, the navel of the world.

Around the entry to the hole swam large dreamy-eyed groupers, strangely tame in contrast to reef fish. When I dove, one smiled and turned broadside to me as if to make it easy for me to spear him. Nearby, a shark lay sleeping, its head under a ledge.

A feeling of enchantment hovered around the place. It was like an underwater refuge where predators and prey lived in peace, where nourishment was delivered gratis by an exchange of fresh and sea water currents. It was beautiful - and sinister, evoking the entry to paradise and also the portal that warns visitors to "abandon all hope, ye who enter here."

As we started back, I noticed a shrine on shore marked by bleached conch shells. I swam over and discovered a bronze memorial plaque that told a tragic tale. On April 2, 1996, three young men drowned in the hole. "Let this be a warning to anyone who wants to explore these tunnels:" it read.

We had our own ordeal trying to reach the skiff. The tide was pouring into the passage. We struggled, pulling ourselves forward with our hands over the bottom, which was covered with pulsating jellyfish. As we made our difficult progress, we were escorted by an image of three contorted faces at the moment of recognition of death.

At a lunch spot on a nearby beach, I asked about the accident. A gentleman who was nursing a rum punch at the bar assumed the attitude of a lecturer.

"There are five basic rules for diving in caves," he said. The gist of his oration was that the three adventurers had failed to trail a guide rope into the hole. They had entered without the recommended three flashlights per person. They had misjudged the amount of air required to get back. The blue hole was 75 to 100 feet deep and had tunnels extending 1,500 feet. It was easy to see how they might have lost their way:

I used to dream of owning a home on the beach of an exotic isle. No more. Our rental house had been rebuilt from one destroyed in a hurricane 10 years ago. Already, salt spray was eating it away. The windows were rusted. Mold was attacking the eaves. The boards of the deck were beginning to warp.

A note in the house advised renters to feed the feral cats - unless they were fond of rats. At least once a day, the island's electric power went off. The local paper was filled with ads for multimillion-dollar homes built on dreams that had been defeated by the tropics. Let others enjoy the romance of ownership.

The spirit that inspires us to foolhardy adventures mercifully wanes with age. The sedentary life has its appeal and we're content to dwell on memories. And yet, in the late afternoon, when the sun gives up its punishing heat and brushes the towering Caribbean clouds with pastel colors, when the surf breaks with a hushed voice on the shore and the breeze makes a ticking sound in the palms, it's not unusual to feel the tug of youth again and illusion of endless summers.

The magic isn't lost after all. The sea spreads its immensity out to the horizon, stirring a reckless mood of curiosity and the urge to discover what lies beyond the horizon. Soon enough, we'll be summoned to another kind of voyage and we'll sail away whether we're ready to go or not.

George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


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