For reasons I no longer remember, I decided that day to move the Mayaguana to a new location. Was it luck? Fate? I’ll never know.
The boat had been neglected and unused for years, an old all-wooden sloop built on Man-O-War Cay. At 37 feet from stem to stern, she had a small cabin and had probably been used in the early days as a government mail boat.
It was a hasty decision to leave Salt Cay, Nassau, in the Bahamas for our destination, Treasure Cay Resort in the Hub of the Abacos. I decided to take Tete along with me. He was a Haitian employee who had sailing experience. As the company pilot, I often joked that I knew only two things about boating: keep the pointed end in the direction you are going and keep water out of it.
I told Tete that we should plan to set sail before noon and that he should hot wire a small lighted portable compass directly to the battery and mount it under the tiller, that we needed extra cans of diesel fuel, and that the house maid needed to make us sandwiches and put a few bottles of beer and water in a cooler. Meanwhile, I would go out to the airport and return with the aircraft life vests and our six-man life raft from the company Navajo just in case.
We were outward bound, passing westward though Nassau Harbor, at noon. The wind was a very rare dead calm that day. I had only my Bermuda shorts on, shirtless, bare feet, resting both arms and body on the mast boom with a foot on the tiller, enjoying the under-way, headway breeze and the adventure ahead. The Perkins diesel was purring, and all was well with the world.
With a cold bottle of beer in hand, we passed the Nassau harbor entrance lighthouse and turned starboard to a northerly direction heading for Hole-in-the-Wall, on the southeastern tip of Abaco. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to depart that day, and to my pleasant surprise as evening fell our luck held: the wind remained a dead calm. And far beyond the lights of land, we were surrounded – enveloped – in a bright clear night sky that was spectacular, filled to the brim, horizon to horizon, with stars.
It was a flashback to the many Atlantic night crossings at 38,000 feet in a six-engine Strategic Air Command B-47 bomber, seeing from the canopy the same perfectly clear night skies filled with stars and selecting them for a number of three-star fixes. Our navigator was “Mac” MacElvain* who before GPS would plot the fixes for our course to Moron Air Base in southern Spain to go on nuke alert duty during the Cold War.
Tonight, the night sky was even more magical, surrounding us in a World-of-Water, all illuminated by the full moon. Never before have I seen the moon’s reflection in a sea so calm – so mercury-like. On the starboard side the moon’s reflection was motionless, floating in the smooth black sea, like a solid white Frisbee that I could just reach out and pick up out of the water.
We took turns at the tiller and no longer needed the compass, since the North Star was just above the top of the mast. And each time I took my turn at the tiller, the moon and stars moved steadily across the heavens. It was hour after hour of a truly once-in-a-life-time magical night. The sun went down; the full moon rose in the east, traversed the night sky, and settled in the west. The planet rotated 180 degrees. It was like being a spectator in a galactic celestial planetarium.
It was still dark as we passed the Pepperpot Light House at Hole-in-the- Wall and, while we appreciated the calm sea, my hope was that the wind would pick up, so we could raise the sails one last time before the Mayaguana, old as she was, would finally end her life hauled out as an on-the-beach Tiki Bar at Treasure Cay.
The moon went down. The sun had risen, and so had the wind as we passed the Hope Town Light House on Elbow Cay. Great! Up went the jib and main sail. I kept the engine in idle as we neared the outer reefs, passing Great Guana Cay and Whale Cay, and in full sail entered the Hub of the Abacos. We reefed the sails for the last time, as we entered the Treasure Cay Marina.
It was only now, years later, that I realize how extraordinary the chances were – how that so-memorable event could not have happened unless five conditions took place that day: my random lucky decision to go, our northerly heading, a full moon, a cloudless night sky, and a dead calm, mirror-like ocean. How incredible the odds! How memorable the night! How lucky we were!
The Final Voyage
I took the Mayaguana out from Treasure Cay one last time before she ended her life as a Tiki Bar. It was later that same year during the Christmas holidays. Maria and I loaded the boat with a tent, sleeping bags, lanterns, food, and spirits to motor her across the Hub of the Abacos into Bakers Bay on the west side of Great Guana Cay.
The locals warned us not to go out. They knew the weather and my limited boat expertise and said that it would be a very rough crossing. I knew they were right but decided to go anyway. My thoughts were that it was just too good a chance to miss – a small adventure – and if it got really bad, I could always turn back. I also towed a dinghy just in case.
As they foretold, it got very rough, but not until we were halfway to Bakers Bay. By then I was afraid to turn back. To turn sideways in the high wind and waves was to risk capsizing. We plowed directly into the wind and the waves, some of them so high that the engine would stop because the fuel tank was in the bow, and when pitched down at a steep angle the engine would stall for lack of fuel and then start again as we went up the next big wave.
Maria was down near the cabin praying, and I was at the tiller, taking the rain and cold wave after cold wave smack in my face and body. It was an exciting time until finally we reached the calm waters of Bakers Bay.
The island blocked the wind, making the Bay waters comparatively calm and peaceful. Both of us went into the cabin, gulping full mouthfuls of Scotch straight from the bottle, feeling the welcome warm burning sensation as it arrived in the stomach. Exactly what we needed to erase the chill.
I jumped overboard in the shallow Bay water, towed the boat and dinghy to the best location, and set the anchor.
We pitched the tent, blessed again with a full moon, and spent days on the beach, enjoying the excitement of the crossing and the Islands’ unmatched calmness – the fresh air and most of all, the tranquility.
*Lieutenant Colonel James Richard “Mac” McElvain served with the 430th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 474th Tactical Fighter Wing, 7th Air Force. James McElvain is on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington D.C – near the center. I flew that same night over North Vietnam that he and his pilot went Mission-In-Action (MIA ). They were in an F -111 out of Takhli and were last heard in a Mayday call after being hit over the Gulf of Tonkin. They were never heard from again and are still missing in action (MIA). Mac, you can rest in peace now on the bottom of the Gulf of Tonkin. Know that we won the war that helped us win the Cold war. Know that you had something to do with that and that people may try, but can never take that mission, that honor, that duty and that sacrifice away from all of us. –Neil
Cornelius “Neil” Cosentino became a US Air Force pilot in 1960 and went on to log over 6,000 hours in military, commercial and private flying. He flew the B-47, KC-135, F-4CDE, including three tours in Vietnam. He was awarded 9 Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Neil joined OLLI-USF in 2018. He has taken classes in writing, music, teaching, activism and online searches. Neil is always interested in new projects.