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ABOUT THE MAIL BOATS: There are nearly twenty mail boats that ply between the islands of the Bahamas, which can be an adventurous way to find passage, particularly when traveling to the remote out-island of Rum Cay. Taking the mail boat is also a good choice for travel especially if youíre bringing longboards or traveling in a group of three or more and have several surfboards, coolers & dive gear Ė which can otherwise be difficult to get on the small planes. Although time en-route takes longer than a scheduled flight, itís really a relaxing way to slow your pace and step into the island rhythm of the Bahamas. Mail boats depart from and return to the island port of Nassau, usually twice a week. To get to San Salvador or Rum Cay by mail boat, you'll need to board the ďLady FrancisĒ (Official Registry Number NP-2716), which departs Nassau twice a week (currently on Tuesdays at 1:00pm and Saturdays at 9:00am). The trip is supposed to take twelve hours and has stops in the Exuma Cays at Highbourn, Farmerís, Black Point, Staniel and Barraterre, with final arrivals to the ports of Rum Cay and then San Salvador. One-way fare from Nassau to San Salvador or Rum Cay costs about $40.00 per person, and just slightly more if you want a bunk bed.

Mail boats are located at:  East Street North on Prince George Dock, located in Nassau, Bahamas.

Their phone number is 1-242-326-7354, and the Fax number is 1-242-322-5545.
MAKE SURE TO CALL AHEAD OF TIME TO INSURE ABOUT THE SCHEDULE - dates, times and costs. To view the current published schedules of mail boats that depart Nassau to some of the other islands, visit the Bahamas Mailboat Website at http://www.bahamas.gov.bs/bahamasweb/port+department1/sitehome.nsf/subjects/mail+boat+schedule
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MIDNIGHT RUN - a mail boat adventure by David Butwin / February 27, 2006

The mail boat is a lifeline for the scattered islands of the Bahamas. David Butwin hops on board. Another heart-stopping sunset was about to engulf the little port of George Town, far down in the Bahamas. I had a choice. I could drift through a last evening at my waterfront inn - no hardship their - and fly home to the US the next morning up through Nassau. Or I could hop the weekly mail boat, a sputtering tub that was taking on its last cargo down at the docks.

The overnight run to Nassau would be 12 to 14 hours, with a couple of rough passages and who knew what other distractions. People were rushing past the inn towards the pier, dragging bundles and suitcases. "Better hurry if you want to go," the desk clerk said. "The boat's leaving in 20 minutes." I rushed to my room, threw my bag together, checked out of the inn and made a run for it (is there any other way to catch a mail boat?). Minutes later, the 42-metre Grand Master was heaving away from the wharf. As we slipped out of George Town and started up the east coast of Great Exuma Island in the lemony twilight, I could see people having cocktails on the terrace of the inn. There was cargo stacked everywhere on the deck - drums of kerosene to be dropped that night at Staniel Cay, crates of squirming land crabs, satchels and boxes, lengths of bamboo and sugar cane, party dresses in plastic bags, children's strollers, bags of mail. There were 20 passengers, and all but one were Bahamians. For $US40 I had a bunk in a shared cabin.

Mail boats are a vital lifeline in the Bahamas, bearing people, mail and cargo between the capital city, Nassau, and the far corners of a chain that stretches 1000 diagonal kilometers and covers 260,000 square kilometers. If Bahamians don't exactly set their clocks by the arriving boats (weather and unloading snags can alter the schedule) they depend on them for life's necessities, for news and gossip. An arriving mail boat is a welcome commotion on a somnolent day. To ride one of these worthies for five, six or a dozen hours is to see a hidden side of island life, and go back to a bygone way of travel.

As we plunged through green waters, I stood on deck and talked with a woman named Ellen Sears. She was taking the mail boat between George Town and Nassau because she didn't like to fly, but she didn't like rough sailing either. I think we were both apprehensive about the two choppy cuts (channels) that lay ahead. "The wind is behind us and that will help," she said in a soothing voice.

Gary Sweeting, standing barefoot and shirtless at the rail, had the air of a college kid on semester break. But he was a business traveler, returning to Nassau after treating two houses on Great Exuma for termites. "There's only one rough spot," he said, "and that lasts just 30 or 45 minutes." Sweeting, who works for his father's extermination company and rides the mail boats to jobs all over the islands, rated his favorite two runs for me: first, the Spanish Rose from Nassau to Spanish Wells, five hours, 7am on Thursday; second, the Lady Francis to Rum Cay near San Salvador, 6pm on Thursday. [Note: aforementioned schedules have since changed] .

The deck began to rock. I went below and sat in the breezeway - two long, facing benches that stretch from one open side to the other. There were high rolling, deep blue waves everywhere I looked. Ellen Sears sat down quickly beside me. We were going through the George Town Cut. Then as the rocking turned to an easy sway, I went up on deck and sat down on a white bench to watch the sunset. "I don't know if you like Bahamian food...." It was a crewman, holding a plate covered with aluminum foil, and a can of soft drink. Like it? I scraped up every last trace of the grilled pork chops, grits and peas and coleslaw while downing the peppery ginger ale. As I watched the cays and islands slide by in the dusk, I felt a blend of excitement and contentment. I raised the can in a toast, thanking the heavens I had thrown my lot to the Grand Master.

I went below. In the galley, three men and a boy were playing whist at a long table. In the breezeway, people were sleeping on the benches. I went up to my cabin and lay on my bunk, but I was too wired to sleep. About midnight I saw lights and felt the engine tremble and slow. I went out on deck, barefoot. The sea glowed under a three-quarter moon. We were approaching Staniel Cay, a remote port in the north Exumas, to drop off the four drums of kerosene, used to power the island's generators. An officer pointed to a spot in the floodlit harbor entrance, an underwater passage known as Thunderball, which is a popular dive site and the inspiration for the James Bond tale of the same name. Staniel Cay is also a favorite stop-off for yachties. As we pulled up to the dock adults and children emerged from their benches and cabins and pressed close to the railing. Under a spotlight, a groaning crane arched over the foredeck, snatched up two drums at a time and lowered them onto the dock, where a muscular young man in tank top and jeans wrestled them from the winch. It was a Winslow Homer painting come to life. I looked down to see crab claws reaching and probing from the slats of two wooden crates. The Grand Master pulled away and the floodlights went out. But the moon was so bright you could see white beaches slipping by. Most of the children were awake now and enjoying the action. About 1am I retired to my cabin. "The overhead light works when you tap it," said my cabin mate, the boat's purser. The room, about four meters square, was warm and stuffy, on the wrong side of the boat to catch the night breeze. He put a small electric fan on the floor and I slept tolerably well. About 7am I awoke and looked out to see a splendid rainbow. It was stretched high above the bridge that connects Nassau and Paradise Island. We were nearing Potters Cay, site of Nassau's busy commercial docks and a roiling daily market. I climbed off the Grand Master onto a clattering wharf. Mail boats from all over the islands were tied up and disgorging passengers and cargo. Land crabs were escaping from gunny sacks that lay open on the docks, scuttling this way and that. Over the din, I heard a voice directed. It was Ellen Sears. I hadn't seen her since we'd talked in the breezeway the night before. We laughed about the trip, agreeing that the cuts had not been so rough after all, and then she said goodbye, leaving me in a swarm of humanity and scuttling crabs. I was standing beside the mail boat Captain Moxey. It had just come in from South Andros on a seven-hour overnight run. People were buying crabs on the spot and transferring them to their own sacks. Andros is a key hunting ground for land crabs.

Nearby a smaller boat, the blue Woodpecker II, had unloaded piles of pink conch shells. Somewhere on the quay, a mail boat would soon leave for some far corner of the Bahamas, and I wanted to be on it.

Article written by
David Butwin /  Published by the Sydney Morning Herald
http://www.smh.com.au/news/caribbean/midnight-run/2006/02/22/1140284098153.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1
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