A long time ago, when I was 11 years old, my parents took the family, my two younger brothers and sister and me, to Nassau in the Bahamas to cruise among the islands.
In Nassau my father chartered an old wooden shrimp boat, the “Last Chance,” 42 feet long with a slow old diesel engine, and he hired a Bahamian guide, named Hugh Smith, to pilot us through the islands. Hugh charged a shocking $10 a day, but the necessity of having him with us was demonstrated the day before he was hired when my father ran the boat aground on a coral head not far outside the harbor. The tide, fortunately, was coming in and lifted us off, but in another place and tide it could have been serious.
Hugh was a cheerful, confident, uneducated man of the islands, about 35 years old. To me he was a big black grownup, about the size of my father but more muscular, with perfect white teeth and eyes that seemed whiter than ours because of his dark skin. His feet were wide, with soles that could walk painlessly on the sharp coral of the islands. He wore khaki shorts and a white strap undershirt and a floppy canvas hat with a brim that shaded his eyes. He loved to laugh and often laughed without any reason, as far as I could tell. I noticed he laughed when he was excited, as he always was when we would hook a fish, or at first sight of an island we had been heading for all day.
Hugh knew the islands well. He looked at the charts from time to time, and he looked at the sky very often, and the rest of the time he steered the boat or directed my father, or sometimes me, at the helm as casually as we drive cars on familiar streets.
We cruised mostly in the protected seas inside the chain of islands that separate the shallow Bahamas from the deep Atlantic. Although the weather was fine, in the middle of the day we sometimes had to cross stretches of open water where the waves were quite high. At first, seasickness turned the otherwise beautiful days into hours of suffering. After the second day we no longer got seasick, but we never quite got used to the impression that our dinghy, a fiberglass fourteen-footer we towed, was about to charge down the huge wave behind us and crash onto the low deck at the stern. Hugh Smith and my father knew it wouldn’t, but we and our mother weren’t so sure, and so, when we reached our day’s destination in late afternoon, we always felt great relief.
Days when we cruised through smoother seas from one small anchorage to another were fun and carefree. We trolled with simple handlines tied to the rigging at the stern of the boat and caught small tuna and amberjacks. Hugh tied a slip-knot in each line trailing out behind us, and we watched the knots. When a fish took the bait, the knot would disappear, and one of us would grab the line. Hugh would slow the engine, and, hand over hand, we would pull the fish in, struggling all the way. Sometimes, partway to the boat, the fighting would stop, and when we came to the hook, it would only have the head of the fish, the rest taken by a shark.
In the late evenings, at anchor between islands, for the excitement of it, my father would make fast a strong line—a rope, really, quarter-inch nylon—to a post at the stern of the old fishing boat and trail it out in the current with a fish-head on a wire leader and a big hook, leaving most of the line coiled in a bucket on deck. We would chum the water with the guts and heads and blood of fish we had caught that day. Before long, the line would begin to be drawn out over the stern, as whatever creature had taken the bait made off with it.
Then one of us would give the rope a sharp tug to set the hook, and the line would streak out of the bucket until it came to the end tied to the post. The boat would shudder and the line tore out of the water and ripped back and forth, with one or several of us excitedly pulling on it. One time the fish was a big barracuda, but generally it was a shark, sometimes four or five feet long, sometimes seven or eight, big dark powerful forms gliding back and forth behind and under the boat, sometimes turning in their struggles and showing flashes of their white undersides. They seemed pure evil.
This went on in increasing darkness, with us kids shouting and pointing and pulling on the line. When the shark tired, my father and Hugh maneuvered it into a noose on a rope through a pulley on the end of the boat’s boom. Once the shark was in the noose, they would hoist it out of the water. The sharks would shake furiously, shake the whole boat, and Hugh would be laughing wildly, his teeth flashing in the dark in the light of our lanterns.
Then Hugh would bring out his .45 automatic and shoot the shark. It was the quickest and safest way to kill it, so we could cut the hook out. In the morning we admired the shark, sometimes took photos, and then dropped the carcass back in the water to feed others.
I don’t think any of us knew Hugh had a pistol when we started out. We only discovered it when he first used it to kill a shark, and we accepted it as only natural he should have one for such things. He kept it in a greasy old triangular leather case in a compartment just inside the hatch from the after deck, a low door that led two steps down into the boat’s main cabin.
In the rear of the main cabin were the double-decker bunks we kids slept in, two on each side. The forward part of the cabin contained a rudimentary galley and the wheel, engine controls, compass, and radio. Two steps farther down in the bow of the boat were the head and the compartment where my parents slept. Hugh slept in a low compartment under the after deck, alongside the engine, converted from where the catch had been stored in the boat’s fishing days. In good weather, he slept on deck.
One day, five or six days out, I noticed that Hugh was more serious than usual. We were cruising in smooth conditions on the inside of the island chain in open water with inner islands only occasionally in sight. I thought he must be uncertain of our course for once. We trolled our handlines and kept our eyes on the tell-tale slip knots, but Hugh’s attention was to the sides and front. He and my father were talking quietly and intently up by the wheel, and neither of them noticed when a slip-knot had been pulled out and a fish was on until we shouted. When the fish had been caught, my father said to pull in the other lines, no more trolling today.
When we got going again, I stayed with the grown-ups in the front of the deckhouse by the wheel, until my father said I should go see what the other kids were doing. As I started aft, the Hugh and the two of them got closer together. Hugh was pointing forward, where a small boat with two Bahamian men had emerged from a cove of a low scrubby island. Hugh looked at the craft with binoculars and nodded seriously to my parents. Then he turned our boat toward a gap between two outer islands on the other side. I thought he meant to go outside into the deeper water to get away from the small boat, but instead we soon turned into the current flowing with the tide out between the islands and anchored, as we sometimes had done for shark fishing. The small boat hadn’t moved, but we could see one of the men pulling the starter rope on the outboard engine. They were far away; the men were just dark forms moving in the boat.
At this point my father called us together. He told us “We don’t know who those men in the small boat are. They seem to be coming this way. Hugh thinks they might want to sell us something, or maybe they need gasoline or water or something, …or they might be robbers. So, just to be safe, I want the four of you to stay in our cabin below and keep very quiet, until we know they are friendly. I don’t want them to know you are here. We’ll come get you as soon as we know it’s OK.” He told me, as the oldest, to make sure the others remembered to be quiet, and he told the others to do what I told them. We went below.
We were scared. I was the only one who had observed the looks and serious conferring of the adults, but without knowing it we had all picked up the change in atmosphere, which had been most marked in Hugh. Our mother had gone quiet but fidgety, putting dishes away and glancing out every other minute. I was afraid Mary, the youngest, at six, would cry or want to be with her mother, but she decided to hide instead and found a small nook at the foot of the bed and pulled a pillow over her. My brothers and I just looked at each other round-eyed and whispered questions to each other, with no answers, and waited.
Soon enough we heard the uneven roar and splash of an outboard approaching and shouts and the bump of the small boat against the stern of the Last Chance. The outboard engine stopped. We heard Hugh’s voice call out and another man’s voice saying something about water. There was some discussion we couldn’t understand, and then Hugh said, loudly, “No, mon! Stay in your boat!” and something about the water. The other men clearly did not like that, and there was confused shouting and bumping of the small boat against ours.
I peeked out. My mother and father were standing to the right and left of the closed hatch to the after deck, listening intently to what was going on outside. My father had Hugh’s pistol, and I saw him quietly pull back the slide to chamber a round and cock the gun, and then he held it by the barrel, with the grip forward.
The shouting had become angrier, and there was scuffling and pounding of feet on deck, as Hugh evidently tried to keep the men from coming aboard. Then the chunk of a machete blade sticking in wood, and quiet. Hugh said, in a strained voice, “OK, mon, no trouble. I get it. You take it and go. Finish!”
The latch rattled and the door opened, and Hugh’s head and shoulder and right leg started down into the cabin. His right hand extended, my father placed the pistol grip in it, and Hugh turned. The door hung open; I could see Hugh’s back. I heard a loud bang, a cry of surprise, another bang, and muffled thumps. There was silence.
After a long half a minute, my father said to my mother “Look after the kids; keep them below,” and he went cautiously on deck and pulled the hatch closed behind him. We came out of the forward cabin into the main cabin, forgetting to pretend we hadn’t been watching. Our mother was shaking. We looked at her. She took a deep breath and said that it was all right now, that Hugh had scared the robbers away. She said he had been scared, too, and he was upset and wanted to be left alone a while, so we should stay below until he felt better. Our dad was helping him. She set about making cocoa for us.
We sat in silence, understanding to various degrees what had just happened and what it meant, listening intently and drinking our cocoa. We could hear Hugh talking in a high voice very rapidly and then lapsing into “huh, huh, huh” sobbing and then again. We could hear my father’s voice, low, comforting, reassuring. There was quiet for a while. Then my father’s voice again, this time sounding matter-of-fact, and the sound of feet on deck and dragging and a couple of quiet splashes and some more muffled talk between Hugh and my father. We could hear them dipping up buckets of seawater and sloshing it on the deck and the low aft railing.
It had been late afternoon when we anchored. It was evening when we went on deck. The deck was wet and clean. The robbers’ boat was gone.
My parents decided they had done enough solitary cruising. In the morning we made what speed the Last Chance could to Arthur’s Town on one of the Bahamas’ larger islands, Cat Island, where I’m pretty sure my father misrepresented our route to the other boaters. I think Hugh did the same among his friends there. He returned to the boat late the first two nights, wobbly and quiet. He sat on the step beside the cabin hatch with his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands for a long time. During the days he and my father sat side by side on the dock, sometimes for an hour at a time, feet hanging over the water, talking, probably going over and over what had happened, what else they might have done, whether it had been wrong, whether there was any risk of discovery, and cementing the story in their minds and their trust in each other.
A week later we made our way back to Nassau, anchoring by island villages known to Hugh in the evenings. With each day our spirits improved; we enjoyed the lovely waters and the sun, and we caught more small tunas and amberjacks, but we didn’t fish for sharks anymore.
At home, when the family talked about our adventure in the Bahamas, we always talked about Hugh Smith’s bravery in scaring away those robbers. My parents exchanged cards at Christmas with Hugh for a few years, but the family never returned to the Bahamas.