All of the men aboard this boat have knives strapped to their legs. Big knives. With serrated edges and nasty, pointed tips. All of the women have knives, too. And tattoos.
Unfortunately, my only accessory is a pink lanyard that holds a tube of ChapStick that is specially formulated for sensitive lips. I take a swig of strawberry soda and snarl. But nobody speaks to me; all communication in my direction consists of grunts and carefully choreographed squinting manoeuvres. From snatches of overheard conversations, I gather my companions at sea are a rugged and loutish bunch. Accountants from the Twin Cities. A maxillofacial surgeon from Toronto. In short: these people are pirates.
But then again, in the Bahamas, everyone is a pirate. A few hundred years ago, that was literally true; today, cannon fights are rare, but the wide-open libertine spirit still prevails. Back in the 18th century, the Bahamas were a de facto “pirate republic.” The captain of a Royal Navy frigate assigned to protect the islands reported that he was “in danger of being overpowered.” Soon, the British forces were in full retreat and pirates ran the show. Many of the original settlers lived in lean-tos made of sail cloth because marauding pirates burned the villages so often, there was simply no point in rebuilding.
But the old settlers’ loss is the modern traveller’s gain. Pirates loved the privacy and seclusion of the 3,000+ islands and cays that make up the Bahamian archipelago. After plundering a ship, they would sink it and move on to their next target. Which means the Bahamas is one of the best places on Earth for wreck-diving. Besides, nothing says “vacation fun” more than swimming through someone else’s broken dreams.
Into the Drink
Intent on doing exactly that, we arrive at our destination-the sunken Ray of Hope, located across the island from Nassau- within minutes. For in the Bahamas, you’re never more than a mile away from a nice bit of submerged chaos and destruction. The divemaster checks my gear, tells me to stick close to the more experienced divers and then gently pushes me over the edge where I follow our boat’s anchor chain downwards. The water is so clear, I can see the shipwreck lying on the sea floor 20 metres below me. My fellow explorers immediately disappear inside the boat, wriggling through windows and holes in the hull. This is idiotic; everybody knows sunken ships are full of dead people. Angry dead people. I suppose that’s why everyone carries knives. But I came to the Bahamas to laze in the sun, party in the casino and drink pina coladas, so I’ll let my compadres handle all matters related to fighting soggy dead-pirate ghosts.
After all, for me, the principal joy of scuba diving has always involved the extreme ease with which a person can stand on his head while floating in mid-water. I do this repeatedly, ignoring the looks of derision evident on the faces of my companions; I will not be denied the sublime feeling of exhalation bubbles burbling through my shorts and past my toes.
Back on deck, we eat fresh fruit and watch dolphins—dolphins!—cavorting in the wake of the boat. The sun is hot, but not too hot. The breeze is cool, but not too cool. This place is so perfect, it actually borders on ridiculousness. No wonder pirates loved it. Back in the day, the only thing about the Bahamas that wasn’t perfect was the pirates, which is why so many people chose to join up rather than resist.
Bahamas’ Freewheeling Past
Which reminds me: it’s time to dive again. The second wreck of the day is shallower, and less obviously haunted, so I venture inside. This is a good thing because, when I look out through a window, I find myself face to face with a shark. It’s a great white, maybe 10 metres long. (Later, the divemaster tells me it was a harmless reef shark, probably two metres or less. But what does she know? I’m sticking with my first story.)
Later, I bid my fellow divers farewell. They’ve got another week of twice-daily diving to do, but I’ve had my fill of the high seas. Back at the Colonial Hilton in Nassau, I admire the statue of Woodes Rogers. Cast in stone, this man looks like he means business. He’s got his sword drawn, ready to do battle to protect the wedding parties and the corporate retreats that currently dominate the lobby. (Those CEOs wouldn’t last a second against Blackbeard, but you should never underestimate the power of a pack of bridesmaids.)
Engraved on the statue are the words that became the Bahamas’ first national motto: Expulsis Piratis, Restituta Commercia. Pirates expelled, commerce restored. While the Jolly Roger no longer flaps over Nassau Harbour, the average traveller still has much to be thankful for when it comes to the Bahamas’ freewheeling past. One old pirate put it best when he said the appeal of the swashbuckling life wasn’t so much the treasure, but the freedom of “the choice in ourselves.” And, honestly, what more could any of us ask for when we leave behind the workaday world and head for the tropics?