I’ll never forget my visit to George Town in winter. Someone had tipped off Bahamian authorities that a cruising wife was illegally selling haircuts on Volleyball Beach. That act of snitchery led to the slashing of the informant’s inflatable, possibly with barber’s scissors—one event in a pattern of grown-ups acting badly in paradise.
If you’ve never cruised down an island, a few words of explanation are in order. George Town is a Bahamian settlement on Great Exuma that is transformed by hundreds of cruisers who generally begin arriving there in December and then clear out by April. At peak, about 400 boats lie at anchor there. Having arrived, these folks proceed to recreate an American suburb just like the one they claim they were trying to escape—except more intense.
Organized activities include volleyball, tennis, bridge, golf and bocce tournaments, softball, lessons in yoga and watercolors, excursions, sailing regattas, and a variety show and beach church—everything but ballroom (beach) dancing. The glue that binds this hyperactivity is the morning “Net” on the VHF radio.
The Net comes on at 8 a.m. on channel 72, under the direction of a volunteer controller who lines up callers to recite their information in an organized sequence, beginning with a weather report. Bahamian businesspeople advertise their restaurants and cab services, event organizers exhort others to volunteer their time, and people with broken equipment plea for free help from their more knowledgeable fellows. (The latter seems to be just another form of socializing since with modern communications, they could just as easily get professional advice from the manufacturers of the equipment rather than guesses from other retirees.)
If you wonder what happened to the Type A personalities in your high school who ran for class president or aspired to lead the Spirit Squad or the Key Club, tune to 72 at 0800. Witness, too, examples of those singular trusted high schoolers who got themselves deputized as junior custodians and patrolled the halls with a ring of schoolhouse keys, then grew up to become local police chiefs. And what would a Canada/American suburb do without law enforcement?
The cruiser police at George Town can’t stop real bad behavior like dinghy slashing, but they applauded the informant that outed the illegal hair stylist. For them, it’s all about rules. Here the big offenses are anchoring in the channel, failing to display anchor lights at night, leaving used motor oil at the supermarket dumpster and, most heinous, failure to heed George Town’s peculiar radio protocols. The penalty: a public scolding over the VHF.
One of the aspects of George Town life is the constant and useless radio chatter, with former accountants, stock brokers, office managers, and homemakers all speaking quite officially to one another like so many fighter pilots, constantly roger-ing this, that and the other thing, when a simple “okey doke” would suffice.
“Serenity, Serenity, Serenity. This is Serendipity. Freebird, Freebird, Freebird: Hey Jude.”
There is a common sense—though an entirely unofficial practice in George Town—where Channel 68 is used as a hailing frequency for the mundane, while 16 is left for emergencies and to the local Bahamians who happily disregard all radio protocol when they see fit. Callers then switch from 68 to any channel that doesn’t already have chit-chat in progress, no easy feat. To the rest of the world, however, 68 is a common ship-to-ship frequency.
CLASH OF CULTURES
Woe be to those unsuspecting mariners passing through, unaware of the George Town Six-Eight Rule. When these innocents try to converse on 68, a hazing is sure to follow: A squadron of voices on the radio promptly interrupt the conversation, barking out, “working channel, working channel” without explanation. If that cryptic phrase doesn’t force the talkers to chat elsewhere, the people on the other end begin keying their mics to “step on” and ruin the offending communication.
My introduction to George Town also included witnessing some Culture War skirmishes. “Beach church” organizers had used the radio to exhort the faithful to a new George Town record—200 people kneeling in prayer. The call to worship made its quota but also inspired parody. On the next day’s Net, followers of the god Bacchus proclaimed Alcohol Appreciation Day, beginning at 4 p.m. on Hamburger Beach. It too would seek to exceed all previous attendance numbers and, in a snide postscript, AAers noted that they alone “welcomed everyone regardless of race, creed, or color.”
Net control that year genuflected to inclusivity by having select announcements translated into French for the growing minority of Quebecois cruisers anchoring at George Town (despite the fact that nearly all the Quebecois I had met along the way understood English thoroughly and weren’t half bad at speaking it, either).
Maybe because the translations made for a longer Net, but I suspect it was actually residual hard feelings from the language wars of Canada: Whenever the Quebecois fellow came on to translate, some bad person keyed the mic, stepping on his entire transmission. This went on for days. Then the Net controller used a threat right out of high school. Mr. Quebecois translator would repeat his translation all day long if necessary until it was heard by everyone. The keying finally stopped.
THE SILVER LINING
To this somewhat negative picture of George Town, let me inject a smidgeon of balance. All that organization is great for cruisers with kids, who must feel isolated much of the time being cooped up on a boat with just mom and dad. At George Town there are plenty of other kids, and fun events for kids are supervised by responsible third parties (i.e., babysitters).
And for the rest of us, the harbor continues to be a great stop on the “thorny path to windward,” in part because of the service sector that has developed around the annual swarm of Type A (for affluent) cruisers. George Town has a great little library, an excellent little supermarket (with mail pickup), hardware stores, good restaurants, and pleasant taverns. It’s got a boatyard with a 50-ton Travelift. On the opposite side of the harbor, Stocking Island is crisscrossed with trails that connect its many beautiful beaches like a nature park, also thanks to the cruisers.
My advice to conscienscious objectors like myself is that George Town is worth a few days, a week at most, but if you drop your hook between December and March, you might like the place better with your radio off.