When our Bimini Island Air charter plane dipped below the clouds over Great Abaco Island, the first glimpse of our long-awaited destination was not a palm-fringed paradise, but a wrecked plane, not much smaller than our own, mired in a swamp and blurred by pouring rain. I exchanged nervous glances with my fellow scouts. This was an inauspicious start to my scout troop’s summer 2010 sailing trip, operated by BSA Sea Base, in the Abacos, a small group of Bahamian islands. It was also the first sign that our adventure would go well beyond a touristy Caribbean jaunt.
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Past crashes notwithstanding, we landed safely at the tiny Marsh Harbor Airport, and were driven to the Conch Inn Marina, where Capt. Newell Gillenwater welcomed us aboard the Sarah G, a 3-masted schooner he’d built from scratch. A crash course on the ship’s workings made clear that our trip was not a mere pleasure cruise, but mandated teamwork and cooperation. After motoring into the glistening Sea of Abaco and dropping anchor for the night, we sprawled out on the deck under the starry sky, pondering what adventures awaited us on our odyssey.
Our greatest one was undoubtedly being introduced to the fine art of sailing. On our second day at sea, we unfurled the sails and began our trip in earnest. Learning how to keep the sails full regardless of our direction, we kept Sarah G slicing through the crystalline Sea of Abaco, zigzagging well off the beaten track to the quirky barrier islands. Our experiences there ranged from Frisbee-sized sticky buns at Lola’s Bakery on Man O’War Cay to a bird’s-eye view of the area from the Hope Town Lighthouse. Yet the journey proved just as rewarding as our destinations; when I sat at the ship’s helm under full sail, watching dolphins leap at our railings from turquoise waters, any misgivings I’d had upon arrival vanished in the face of sheer exhilaration.
Another highlight on the trip was snorkeling the Fowl Cay Reef Preserve, off Man O’ War Cay. As soon as I submerged in the designated spot, my jaw dropped: we were hovering mere feet over a breathtaking coral meadow. Garish fronds waved gently in the currents, welcoming us to the aquatic oasis. Fish of every shape and hue imaginable swarmed over the top of their coral citadel, as a sea turtle shyly picked its way across the sandy bottom several feet below. This unspoiled grandeur left me just as awestruck as when I had first seen the Grand Canyon.
My adventure ended with another, decidedly less pleasant surprise. On our last morning at sea, my shipmates were specks in the distance by the time I snorkeled out to join them in a tidal pool off Tahiti Beach. When I immersed my face, alone and distant from the boat, I was greeted by the steely glare of a barracuda, its rivet-like eye sending a jolt of adrenaline through my veins. Thirty harrowing seconds later, I hoisted myself up the ladder, with newfound respect for the BSA Swimming buddy system we had long scorned.
The incident belied the life-changing adventure which preceded it. In the span of a week, we had learned to operate a 100-foot yacht, encountered authentic Bahamian culture, and witnessed the grandeur of the oceans firsthand. On the morning of our departure, as I looked back on our trip and watched dawn break over the marina, I realized that our Sea Base trip had been nothing like the idyllic cruise we’d expected. Thanks to these memories and experiences, it had been the voyage of a lifetime.
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