The finger dock was a five foot drop from the deck, and I landed hard in the dark with a folded bike in one hand and a support line in the other. Dawn was still an hour off. Largo’s high decks float well above the fixed docks in Great Harbour Cay, so disembarking the boat at high tide is always a workout.
My bike snapped together sharply, breaking the early hush, and I peddled east on the inland road to the airstrip. The ruins of the old nightclub hung overhead like a warning. As the roll of the surf, I swung south along the beach road, the only traveler except for crabs edging their way across the dunes.
Ultimately bound for Chicago, I pedaled my single-speed bike to a twin-prop plane for the half-hour hop to Nassau. The forecast in the heartland was for biting wind, but our Bahamas weather posed a more complicated calculation.
We are in the thick of hurricane season, and Danny and Erika had just blown by. And as I rode away from our sunny island, no trouble was stirring off the African coast, where Atlantic storms always seem to start. In this strong El Niño year, Karen and Largo should have been safe while I gave a speech in the Windy City, but in hindsight the odds were never in our favor. “Man plans, God laughs,” the Yiddish proverb says. God was laughing.
We had found Great Harbour Cay a month before while seeking shelter from a storm. As Hurricane Danny bore down on Grenada and continued west, friends begged us to abandon Bimini for better cover. We agreed and sailed Largo a full day’s passage to a dock at the Great Harbour Cay Marina, a hurricane hole.
We stayed through two storms which threatened us but missed us in quick succession, and the forecast looked good enough for me to travel. But as I turned down the linen in my Chicago hotel, hurricane Joaquin turned up on my monitor. By midnight I was booking flights to get home before Joaquin. It blew up on the charts barreling toward the Bahamas in what seemed like seconds. The island airlines announced they would suspend all flights, but I had to try.
I landed in Baltimore too late for a room or a meal, and made a bed on a bench in the empty airport. The change from my five-star suite was drastic, yet funny; as I curled up, dressed in a suit, with my raincoat as a pillow.
In the morning the first Nassau flight inched me closer to my wife. The pilot gave hurricane updates from 30,000 feet, explaining that he would land, load, and leave the Bahamas in 20 minutes. Far below, the captain of the El Faro began to fight the winds that would soon disable and roll his ship, taking all 33 souls.
From the plane I e-mailed Karen as she bustled to secure our boat. She strung Largo out on 14 tethers between the finger docks, adjusting lines remaining from the earlier storms. The zip line was re-strung and tested again, as I was still planning to ride out the storm on our boat.
But then, Joaquin swelled to a category IV with 140 mile per hour winds. This was unexpected and, admittedly, frightening. Reports of loss from the southern islands began to filter in. As the storm grew my strategy evolved from riding it out to survival. The Marina moved Karen from Largo to a concrete condo. As I landed in Nassau palms whipped the wind along the runway, and losing our boat became a real fear. I made the last flight out to Great Harbour Cay. The rain began to fall.
Over the next three days, Joaquin refused to be forecast. It held straight for us, but slowed down, churning in place, resisting the predicted turn north. Boats foundered and sank, buildings were flattened, power was out.
Landlocked cruisers shared the panic in calls and emails as we waited our turn. Karen picked a windowless room in the condo where we would shelter in place. I told her stories of surviving other storms in other places, but none a category IV. We made last plans. The calm before the storm was cruel and we slept in fitful bits, waking to NOAA alerts as if they were from the front lines of an invasion. And we held each other, glad to be together, living the life we love, even in the storm.
And then it was over.
For all the destruction and loss of life Joaquin caused by holding still so long over the southern islands, it suddenly turned hard north and east and barely brushed us. I stood in the sun on Largo’s high deck as the danger passed, exhausted from preparation and fear, having never even been in the fight.
And I slept, in my bed, once again.