Behold the Islands of the Bahamas – by Mail Boat

Lately, the Bahamas has been making the news (in good ways)!

Behold The Islands of the Bahamas

Did you notice the oh-so-pricey, but very well done, advertisement that the Bahamas’ Ministry of Tourism aired during the Super Bowl?  Beau and I were watching the game (and commercials!) at a local bar. As one particular ad began, we were struck by the beautiful waters being shown. We each thought the same thing, “That looks like the Bahamas.”

As the footage rolled, he recognized the islands depicted. When the commercial concluded, “Behold the Islands of the Bahamas” and the logo for the Ministry of Tourism appeared, the entire bar erupted in shouts and applause.  (If you missed this commercial on television, here it is below.)


The real inspiration for today’s post, however, is from different news coverage . . .

New York Times Article

Recently, a friend emailed me a link to a New York Times article, from the travel section, entitled “Off the Tourist Grid in the Bahamas.” The article’s author, Porter Fox, details his six-day journey through the out islands of the Bahamas last spring – all aboard a freight boat.

Mr. Fox gives vivid descriptions of his 350-mile trek, all of which resonate with accuracy, as far as I can tell.  It reminded me of my own experience aboard one of the freighters (a.k.a. mail boat) last fall…

My Own Experience

Beau and I were headed to Nassau for a sailing Regatta. Typically, we would fly for about 30 minutes on a regional plane or with local pilots. This time, however, was different. The boats were coming with us.

Our community was sending two sailboats to the race. Beau, as the captain of one of the boats, takes great responsibility with these special vessels. Along with the other captain and several crew members, we were towing the two sailboats, and Beau wanted to be there to make sure things progressed smoothly.

The towing vessel was one of the steel freighters that usually makes the circuit through our stretch of out islands, just as Mr. Fox described. Although I see the mail boat at our local dock on a near-weekly basis, bringing a variety of supplies, I’d never traveled on it.

This was going to be an adventure.

I did not travel any of the specific routes described by Mr. Fox, but he captured the typical experience well. I encourage you to read his article for vivid details, and I’ll keep my commentary somewhat brief and let the pictures paint the rest of the story.

Let the Adventure Begin

Generally speaking, the mail boat stops at our island to offload all of the orders from Nassau, then proceeds to other stops along the chain of islands. A few days later, on its return to Nassau, the boat stops again to pick up cargo headed for Nassau: empty propane tanks to be refilled, empty pallets, material returns, vehicles to send for repair, etc.

Thus, on my departure day, the boat first had to load up the items left on the dock before we could proceed.

Mail boat at the dock, buzzing with activity.

Unlike most boat runs, this one also required the boat to use its crane to hoist the 60 foot masts of the sailboats onto the deck, along with loading on the sails, rigging, booms , chase boat (dinghy) and other regatta items.

Nassau Regatta Nov 2012 037

Masts and booms on starboard (right) side of bow, alongside boats, trucks, miscellany freight and the boat’s crane.

The sailboat crews also worked with the mail boat crew to secure the two sailboats we’d be towing. Once that was accomplished, we were underway!

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Sailboats towing behind the mail boat as we leave turquoise shallows for the deeper sea.

For awhile, I rode on a bench on the stern (rear), watching the sailboats with the guys, feeling the ocean breeze and petting the dog that was on board en route to a Nassau vet. After a while, I wandered to explore . . .

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In the mail boat cockpit with Captain and crew. Friendly men whom I know from their frequent visits and mutual friends.

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60 foot masts and booms for both sailboats laid down the length of the mail boat’s starboard side.

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Our cabin.

Even standing back from the doorway of our cabin, the room was so narrow that the camera couldn’t capture it all. Each cabin contained six bunk beds – bunks stacked three high on each side. A little window allowed fresh air in (although the cabins are fancily air conditioned now, had it been summer).

Rooms didn’t seem to be assigned, but first come first served. We were the last ones on the boat, so some of the guys had saved us spots with them. The boat was not full to capacity, but people from other islands were aboard as well.

Since this trip was before I learned I was a mere mortal, able to succumb to being seasick, I only felt a tad bit nauseous as we rolled through the sea. Beau and I were reading books in our cabin when a knock at the door alerted him to a problem with one of the sailboats.

We scrambled back to the stern and saw where the rigging was pulling loose on the bow. The Captain cut his engines to slow the boat. The crew pulled the sailboat in closer, and Beau jumped onto her deck to assess the situation. That was something to see on the wide open horizon of water!

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At-Sea Maintenance.

Once Beau was safely back on board the mail boat, the Captain revved up the engines and we were underway again.

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The trip is slow going, usually about an eight-hour journey. This day, with two sailboats trailing behind, it was even slower. Close to a 12-hour excursion, it was after midnight by the time we were secured at the dock in Nassau.

Despite being tired, I was enthralled by watching from shore as the Captain maneuvered the big boat. First, we’d just tied up alongside another mail boat and climbed through both boats onto the dock that way. Then, in the darkened port, our Captain simply he slid his boat back and in between two other freighters, with just a few inches on either side, in the most skillful parallel parking job I’ve ever witnessed! After that, we headed to Beau’s family for a short night’s sleep.

The next morning brought a flurry of activity.  Back at the dock, the crews had to assemble the sailboats and prepare for the race. First, the sailboats took turns pulling alongside while the mail boat’s crane carefully lifted the 60 foot masts off of the deck, high into the sky where they could be pulled straight by the men pulling on ropes below, and finally lowered into the hole of the sailboat.

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Setting the mast.

And we weren’t the only ones! Other freighters were nestled end to end with us. Many were performing the same feats for the sailboat crews of the islands they served.

In the picture below, our stern-side neighbor is releasing a smaller “C” class sailboat to a crane on the dock. The crane will lower the boat from the deck of the mail boat into the sea, where it will be prepared for the race. Note the arched highway to Paradise Island and the big pink structure of Atlantis in the background.

Busy dock activity, Potter’s Cay.

It was a blustery weekend, with winds at 25-30 mph, so we had lots of chilly, wet excitement during the races in the harbor just off of Montague.

“A” Class Race.

I think the lineup of sails heading toward the orange buoy is so pretty.

After a fun weekend, it was time to head home. The mail boat wasn’t scheduled to depart for several days, but Beau had to get back to work. So we flew home, a much faster trip!  Several days later, accompanied by crew who had stayed extra days in Nassau, our sailboats returned safely home.

It was, in fact, an adventure!

Have you ever traveled by mail boat, or something similar? Did you like the Super Bowl ad for the Bahamas?

(Thanks to Deb for sending the NYT article and inspiring this post!)

12 Responses to Behold the Islands of the Bahamas – by Mail Boat

  • Suzanne Tendler says:

    Dawn, thank you for such a interesting blog today. I loved seeing the commercial for the Bahamas. I wasn’t aware of it, since I’m not a football fan, and didn’t watch the Super Bowl. Watching it gave me goosebumps.
    I also enjoyed the pictures of the mail boat. I had always heard so much about traveling on a mail boat, but had never been aboard .

    • Dawn says:

      Thanks for commenting, Suzanne! I confess I mostly watch the Super Bowl for its commercials and the social aspects of getting together for the big game. 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the blog. The mail boat trip was different from my transportation norms, which made it so interesting! I’ll probably still stick to a quickie flight most times in the future, but I’m glad to have had the experience. Enjoy your weekend!

  • Cherylle Williams says:

    Hey Dawn,

    This is so amazing. I always wonder how their mail system worked. That’s amazing and cool. Your pictures are awesome. I really enjoy reading about your adventures in the Bahamas. The commericals are correct it is better in the Bahamas. Enjoy your weekend.

    Cherylle W.

  • Rita-Kay says:

    Dawn, I’m so sorry we didn’t come down to the Regatta,as we are still in Nassau. Had no idea Beau was racing!! We’ll be coming your way soon. Can’t wait to visit. We are getting the bottom of the boat painted nxt wk and then I’m ready to cruise!!!!! Love your blog, keep up the good work!!!

    • Dawn says:

      Thanks for commenting, Rita-Kay! The Nassau Regatta was last fall, so you didn’t miss us recently. Glad you’ll get to cruise and head this way soon. I’m so glad you like the blog – thanks for following!

  • bahamasdread says:

    Hi dawn, loved your post about superbowl and the mailboat experience.I’ve lived in nassau for most of my life, but never travelled by mailboat. totally a different way to see the islands. just like you, i watched superbowl at a rowdy party in nassau and the entire party went silent as the ad played.
    and the whole place erupted with cheers, when it was over. honestly that was one of the proudest moments of being a bahamian, to see bahamians proud to see their island showcased on a global stage.
    i also wrote a post about it, check it out some time!

    • Dawn says:

      Thanks for commenting, Fabian. Give the mailboat a try sometime! If you prepare for the “experience” of it, knowing you’re not in for a luxury cruise, it’s a great way to see the out islands. I did see your Super Bowl post the other day and smiled at our similar experience. I was reading quickly and am behind on blog-commenting, so sorry I didn’t say anything to you there yet! Cheers to the Bahamas!

  • kenneth says:

    I’m a Bahamian! I travel on mail boats as a kid from Nassau to Long Island.. The experience is a beautiful thing.. I now live in Palm Beach County Fl. I wish one left here to the Bahamas..

    • Dawn says:

      Hi Kenneth, delighted to hear from you! Thanks so much for your comment. Sounds like it’s time for you to get back home and cruise the islands again. 🙂

  • ericwiberg says:

    Many thanks for your detailed and superbly illustrated article about a mailboat experience. I’ve started a blog about the history of mailboats in the Bahamas which I hope to turn into my next book. I took the liberty of posting a link to this story. More at Thank you!

    • Dawn says:

      Hi Eric. Thanks for commenting here and for linking my post in your blog. What a delightful concept to detail the mailboat history and experience! I enjoyed browsing your blog. Keep in touch!

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