A Travelogue of a Dive Vacation to the Bahamas, Hurricane and Shipwreck Included at No Extra Charge
November 6, 1998
I've seen my share of vessels bumping against the seawall in a blow and disintegrating hulks washed up on a beach. I never expected to actually get to watch a wreck in progress and not be able to do anything about it, but that's what happened while Ken & I were in Bimini for a dive vacation.
We'd listened to the maritime weather before our trip and Hurricane Mitch was somewhere in Central America winding down. It was late October so we knew we were on the "cusp" (as it were), but things looked pretty good.
This dive boat was a 65 footer and carried 23 paying customers along with 5 crew. The plan was to do shark dives, drift dives, night dives... a total of 3 dives per day if possible. We'd dive, eat, travel, dive, eat, travel, dive, eat, sleep, etc. Sometimes part of the sleep time was also spent traveling.
The captain was always listening to the weather over the radio and checking the weather fax to determine the location of the next dive. Wind direction and sea conditions controlled the choices. But, it seems that Hurricane Mitch wasn't done yet after all. "He" decided to cut a path of destruction back up from Central America and head our way. The clouds started to take the sun away and prudence dictated we pull into Bimini about a day ahead of schedule. Wind and seas were building fast.
This little dot of land wasn't much, but it was enough to hide behind in a small protected bay. There was an end-tie reserved for us. Lots of dock lines and fenders were deployed. We could all go ashore and have a good time as long as we got back to the boat by midnight for the Captain's weather briefing.
The whole island is only a mile or so long and a few hundred feet wide. You can't get lost, but you can get bored if you're there for very long. Going ashore in Bimini consists of walking through the "marina" and heading left for the "End of the World Bar" or right for the hotel bar. Both are good hangouts, but not very exciting... unless you get turned on by looking at the underwear and business cards tacked to the walls and ceiling at End of the World Bar or smirking at the1985 photos of Gary Hart and his consort at the hotel bar while trying your skill at the "Ring-Ding"..
This island has been buffeted by several storms over the years. Once a prosperous sport fishing resort; now it's in shambles. Nothing looks like it's been repaired in many years and all this has taken it's toll on the people who call Bimini home.
We made the rounds, having a drink at both hot spots and walking the length of the island before making our way back to the boat. There was no announcement as promised, but it was obvious we weren't going anywhere just now. We slept. The wind was howling and the rain was falling in huge drops. From the air-conditioned comfort of of our cabin, we could hear nothing of all this, but we could feel the vessel bobbing & straining against her dock lines.
Morning brought no good news. The wind was blowing 40 and gusting 50+ on the leeward side. We weren't going anywhere soon. The seas would be up long after the wind quieted. That meant trying to reschedule our flight back to California. It took only a call to United to advise them we were "stuck" on Bimini... we'd work out the details of a new flight whenever we got back to Miami.
At least one of the other passengers had no intention of being late so he bought a ticket on the puddle jump pontoon plane that made a couple of flights a day to/from Bimini. We were in no hurry. We were on vacation! In the morning, after breakfast (which was rather slight I might add due to the prolonged trip) the Captain told us that a small freighter was about to drag ashore on the windward side of this tiny island. Wow, entertainment!
Seems the freighter, The Galant Lady, had been anchored a couple of miles off shore inside the reef for neatly 2 months waiting for spare parts. The Coast Guard plucked the remaining crew off the ship the day before when anchors could no longer hold against the strong winds. No one was left aboard.
We were across the island in about 2 minutes. We could have thrown a rock and hit it. It was already that close to the hard coral shoreline. Camera? Didn't you bring the camera? This shipwreck was imminent and definitely a photo op.
Even before we made it back with the camera, we heard the most horrible grinding, tearing, scraping sound. I can't begin to describe it. I could feel the "bump" through the ground under my feet. The sound was one that grabbed hold of you and made sure you'd remember. Almost immediately, the smell of diesel filled our lungs and we knew this was indeed the end.
We ran the rest of the way through the puddles, sandy mud, and trash that the storm had deposited ashore until we could again see the freighter. One anchor line was still stretched out toward it's useless weight. The other had long since broken. The freighter was at an odd angle laid over on it's port side; steel shrieking in pain as it tore on the rocks. Much of the island's population turned out to watch, but not nearly as many as one might expect. Guess this was really a fairly common occurrence to them, but not to us.
Several houses and hotels in various states of disrepair or construction that had long ago stopped short stood silently atop the island's crest no more than a few hundred feet from the now wrecked ship. Next door, a cemetery. Perhaps a fitting resting place for what remained of this freighter. Depression seems to hang in the air of this island.
By the next morning, pieces of the freighter had washed far up onto the shore as the hull continued to wallow in the surf line. What remained of the tender lay broken and twisted. Dented propane tanks, frayed line, and various unidentifiable bits of flotsam and jetsam littered the beach.
We took more photos and made our mental notes. People watched mostly in silence. As we walked along the waters edge instead of cutting across the island the way we had come, we came upon part of the life ring that had hung aboard "G nt La ".
Somehow it seemed fitting to take it back for all aboard our dive charter to sign and then deliver to the End of the World Bar to become part of the decor.
We were more than a full day late getting back to Miami. We relaxed in the first Class Lounge watching the TV coverage of the Space Shuttle landing, waiting for our new flight, and remembering.