Unraveling Weft, Warp and Woof
Sleeping through a Nap
How does a flag send the wrong message.
Nearing our January 2018 departure from Key Biscayne, Florida, destined for Bimini, I looked over Mystique's code flags. Knowing I would need two of them shortly upon entering Bahamian waters in 2018, I found both and readied them for their raising within that week. However as I unfolded them, I noticed their condition was somehow different from my last sail to the Bahamas. Maybe it was its weathered, faded colors; maybe it was its threadbare look, its stringy ends, maybe I saw it differently because I was different. Maybe its colors had faded. Maybe its image after eight voyages into Bahamian waters had changed. Maybe the flag's symbolism had changed.
Back in 2016 I anchored Mystique near Cambridge Cay in the Exuma Land and Sea Park in 2017, a park ranger named Henry stopped by my Mystique. Noticing my yellow quarantine flag flying near my spreaders, he motored over to my catamaran to ask me if I had checked in with Bahamian Customs and Immigration. Asking seemed unnecssary as my boat’s flag already indicated that I hadn't yet done so. Then Henry asked me why I had not checked into the Bahamas at either Bimini or Nassau. My answer seemed to surprise him. I answered by first asking him if he had ever sailed a catamaran single-handed or anchored in Bimini or Nassau harbors. He said he had not.
I explained I had passed both ports as I felt they were unsafe. As the owner and skipper of my vessel, I chose a course based on my situation: an easterly wind, diminishing light, a strong tidal current, poor holding ground and sailing without crew. Bottom line neither of those two Bahamian ports felt safe enough for me to enter or to anchor in. I asked Henry if he would jeopardize his boat or himself if he felt in those conditions...if he felt unsafe? Would he do either to satisfy a requirement based on a Customs and Immigration regulation?
Before Henry departed, I was tempted to ask him how he could insist or "strongly recommend" my checking into either place without local knowledge of his own homeland, but I decided against asking such a question, figuring he was wasn't interested in being challenged further or questioning their own system. After all, he was a Bahamian government employee hired to enforce regulations no matter what his own experience or understanding. It was unnecessary for him to know the experiences of those who had to comply. it was only his job to enforce and support regulations while collecting the Park's $30 mooring fee.
Henry seem to trust my explanation at least until the next day when he reappeared; this time to threaten me. Informing me my boat had crossed into their country illegally and I had failed to check in. He would not get close to my boat so he yelled that if I didn't move my boat immediately, he would contact Nassau officials and have Mystique towed there for a $10,000 fine. Meeting Henry Again in 2017.
Wow, for a country without physical borders, their true nature quickly appeared. When flags stand for very little, using force or threat become the way. It felt sad to see this idyllic place not yet ready to show understanding their invitation. I understand they are a haven for pirates, but to treat honest sailors the same as the drug runners and gun smugglers is disappointing at least. When the default reaction is treat everyone as if they are crooks or criminals, the society's goodness will disappear. I had displayed my boat's flags, been honest about their message, complied with their regulations, paid for their mooring, had no dishonest history. So it when authority wants humans to comply to their laws and systems - no questions asked, honesty and humanity lose.
All boats entering the Bahamian waters are supposed to have a quarantine or entirely yellow flag flying below one’s starboard spreader. This is to indicate your vessel has yet to clear Customs and Immigration. Of course, it’s all based on the honor system. Pirates, drug traffickers and gun runners could raise a skull and crossbones signaling their ill intentions, but that would be stupid to reveal such vital info as it would disclose the secret nature of their nefarious
Henry asked me where I was going to check in. I told him my plan was to sail to George Town (another 90 or so miles south) where I had sailed alone the previous year to check in with government authorities there. To show him I knew what I was talking about, I mentioned George Town's tidal current, open anchorage, holding ground and wind protection as ideal conditions for sailors. Especially compared to Bimini and Nassau. I added that I had checked in at George Town the previous year without any difficulties from Customs and Immigration. I even offered to let him see my passport. But he declined that offer.
I had followed the procedures for entering his country by flying my yellow quarantine flag. I had not yet gone ashore as I had yet to clear Customs and I told him I planned to check in at my earliest and safest opportunity which was George Town. Henry was pleasant and courteous, but he seemed baffled about my not having stopped at either of the two ports I have passed.
Before he departed, he inquired if I had any weapons or firearms aboard. I answered I did not. I could not help wonder how Henry would have responded if I had been flying the Jolly Roger from my mast. If I had been dishonest and lying! What questions would he have asked me if I flew a pirate symbol? What questions would he have asked me if I had raised a Bahamian pennant prematurely? Would he have even engaged me in conversation? Then I realized that their system is all based on people following "their honor system" - raising a flag, raising a yellow quarantine banner, and then telling the truth. But trust is only honorable to a point. Then it occurred to me that honesty isn't really being encouraged. If authorities don't trust a flag, what and who do they trust? Henry's response to me suggested he did nor trust the flag or me. In essence, either accepting the flag as is or not.
Every nation's flag flies to represent what its country stands for. A country's flag is always displayed right side up, except when a vessel is in distress. Unfortunately the Bahamian flag has no right side up. (see below) So, in a sense, whenever the Bahamas raises its national symbol, it waves its pride while calling for help. The dual message is contradictory and should suggest to any outsider, they are a distressed and troubled nation. Like many of us unaware of our own dis-ease, the symptoms of our sicknesses manifest with our attitudes and behaviors. It is too bad when the population doesn't seem to recognize or comprehend their flagging message.
To raise a country's flag that has no correct upside seems odd to me. heir flag can be raised without regard to side. It seems to suggest neither side matters. A flag with multiple meanings is sending mixed messages. If symbolism represents a nation's nature and values, the Bahamian flag seems to be a confused symbol right now.
Without commenting on their politics or policies, I have witnessed first hand how the Bahamian culture works and doesn't. Here are a few of my observations during my sailing in their waters:
- Customs charges each vessel a $300 yearly Customs fee to enter or pass through their waters.
- Two fishermen answer our MAYDAY call and tow Mystique into a protective harbor at nightfall and then later give us enough fresh filleted fish and lobster for 10 meals.
- Upon clearing in Nassau's Customs House, I observe Cruising licenses and fishing permits piled upon official's office desks and floors; I see no office computers.
- One 3-manned Nassau harbor patrol accuses me of illegal activity and then trash Mystique's lockers and storage without finding anything illegal and without helping me restore boat to shipshape.
- One Nassau harbor patrol trio couldn't be more helpful when I needed dinghy assistance.
- Another three Nassau harbor patrol boarded my boat and intimidated me with a machine gun.
- Park ranger threatens to fine and tow Mystique for not clearing Customs earlier.
- Harbor police board my vessel without cause for "my protection and security".
- Enforcement of boat speed, traffic, water pollution and noise is nonexistent in Nassau.
- Private Nassau marinas charge or restrict visiting sailors for docking their dinghies.
- George Town sailors are treated free dinghy docking and unlimited fresh water
- A local waterman shows us where to tie up our dinghy for free.
- A local government official charges me $35 per signature to notarize a document. I need 10 signatures; I pay for one.
- A office staff member copies 30 documents for free; I give her $35 for her generoisty.
- BASRA, a sea and and air rescue association, provides no rescue services, exists in name only.
- A BASRA representative (Chris) helps us find some towing assistance when Mystique becomes disabled when it lost both its rudders.
- No recognition, organization or agency coordination for helping disabled ships at sea.
- A local dive company charged us $10,750 to tow Mystique 50 miles when she became rudderless.
- An American towing company charges us the $300 Customs fee to tow us 150 miles because I had paid for their Golden Membership.
- while the island becomes more and more divided between the halts and the have-nots, crime rate is increasing.
- a major fire decimated much of the western part of the island without any news coverage of the event.
- Next year the government doubles the time period only if your boat leaves and returns Bahamian waters within six months.
What difference does a flag make if the honor code is ignored? If it doesn't mean anything? Let's say for argument sake I had been smuggling drugs or firearms into the Bahamas, would I have admitted to illegal activity? Asking such a question is equivalent to asking if I am a scoundrel, a crook or a criminal. Believing my flag did not matter when in 2017 Nassau harbor patrol boarded my boat with a machine gun after three previous boardings in three months. After opening up all my vessel's lockers and closets, I had not only shown the police I had nothing to hide, they left my catamaran in a shambles. What would happen if Henry or the harbor patrol have asked me if I were a pirate or if I were flying the Skull and Crossbones?
Seasoned and sensible sailboaters hoist code flags up a pole or mast to indicate their status and intensions. Once up, flags wave at us as to communicate with or signal other vessels. A waving flag is code, like a full luffing sail indicates the craft is heading head to wind. A banner is like a posted high sign that draws attention to our vessel. Always displayed aloft to be seen by others from afar. they can be seen by those who notice and acknowledge your presence. Always a boat's colors and design represent value(s). "Hoisted" mostly to send a clear message; they are not "raised" like a field crop or an offspring / child. They are meant to signal a vessel's honesty. But
Let's imagine an ordinary flag with a voice and with feelings! Let's imagine that it can communicate honestly. Would that flag speak the truth? Stand for all its people and their values? Be made with integrity? Stand the test of time? Wave love and sensitivity? Honor its nation and cultures? Proudly wave its weave? Fly with its weft and warp intact? Be much more than a warp and week fabric? Preposterous, you say. The first star-spangled banner and the stars and stripes stand for something other than what they first did.
Sometimes seeing what something is rather what I might want it to be is a wake-up call of sorts. I know I have at times idealized the Bahamas. Referring to a destination as "paradise", "heaven" or "sanctuary" because it has been all those for me has lead me to somehow believe it would be that again. Ah, nostalgia,....ah, luring optimism....ah, tempting idealism.....ah, sweet dreams, ah, reality.
My previous raising of Mystique's sails and flags before returning to the Bahamas flashed through my consciousness. How could I not notice this before? Less than a year old, my encounters, challenges, highlights, and blessings sailing the Exumas still felt somehow fresh and refreshing. While all past passages dissipate from NOW moments, their images and lessons don't simply vanish. In fact, my three 2017 Bahamian voyages (one to Spanish Wells / Eleuthera and two to the Exumas) are still much more than mere snap shots. Rebuilding a starboard engine with Clint's help, an anchor-dragging incident in Nassau harbor around midnight during a 30-knot squall minutes before ramming a dock, being boarded by harbor patrol four times in four months, the last one being boarded by armed police brandishing a machine gun and accusing me of illegal activity, sharing Mystique with Steven and the Roldan family in the Exumas. Their memory will remain within me as long as I breathe. So while reflecting upon last year's reality, I also unfolded last year's pennant and found it worn and weary like I remember feeling when I returned to the Miami area. Why can't a simple flag simply repair itself upon my returning to a state named Florida, I asked myself.
This next voyage crossing the Florida Straits and the Gulf Stream into Bahamian waters would surely be different. It had to be. Each adventure is, after all different - that's certainly part of the lure - la difference! Then Lainie came aboard and sowed my boat's Bahamian worn and torn flag so it could renew itself aloft near my boat's starboard spreaders.
Entering the Bahamas as a cruising yacht has a price to pay. The Bahamian government charges $300 to enter their waters as a cruising / visiting vessel. They offer a fishing license good for six months and as part of their Customs and Immigration duty for entering their aquatic borders and thereby checking Mystique into their county. After I enter and pay the tax, I lower my quarantine flag and I raise the newly-sewn flag once again to notify all Bahamian marine life that Mystique had legally returned.
Whenever any yacht flies a flag upside down, international rules state it indicates distress. A ship turns it upside down to notify those who can see her that the boat is in trouble. But what happens when a flag looks the same either way - what happens when right side up and upside down appears the same? The Bahamian Flag
Of course, a yellow quarantine flag (required to be flown by all yachts entering a country legally - that is before Customs and Immigration have collected their duty. So this means that a single colored flag can be flown either way; there is no upside or downside. If so how can a flag indicate distress is the flag appears the same either up or down? The answer would seem to suggest no one would know, but after seven voyages into the Bahamas, I would venture to offer another interpretation and that is - A boat is always in distress when entering the Bahamas. But if a topsy turvy flag is only a visual representation raised by those in trouble in the hope that those within sight will see it and come to the rescue, how do they know the difference between Bahamas being safe and sound and it being in trouble?
If you get into distress on the water there, you will discover BASRA - their air and sea search rescue association that offers no actual rescuing or physical assistance. We unfortunately discovered this fact when a link on our anchor chain parted ways during a squall and sent Mystique ashore. Then we discovered reality in New Providence when we drifted ashore where both of our rudders broke off and Mystique needed towing.
Maybe when a flag has no difference between right side up and upside down, it symbolizes a problem no one can answer. Maybe upside down is a reverse reality. Maybe upside down is the way they live life. Maybe their society is so corrupt they don't know which end is up. Maybe all of these or none. Maybe they are saying "My vessel is 'healthy' and I request free pratique." or maybe it is full of diseased crew members wanting to come ashore and infect the population. Maybe they don't want to realize anyone needs help in the Bahamas. Who actually runs into trouble and needs rescuing in the Bahamas? Maybe people! Ah, maybe because rescuing someone is a perception, They want to give the impression they don't need help or maybe it is a cry for help. Certainly their flag suggests then live either in a land of denial or ignorance. Best to be confused and perplexed so no one knows for sure.
The sick, wounded or ignorant can’t often help themselves. Also, sometimes the disabled, drowning or sinking person denies reality. Sometimes he or she doesn’t realize how severe they are disabled. If a society is to recoup or recover, they often need assistance. Sometimes those who run the asylum are the most diseased. They can think they know better whereas they let their ego and power betray them. They too can’t view their own sickness. Sometimes humanity lives too close to the trees to see the forest!
When I looked at my Bahamian flag after I saw her message.
After our misadventures sailing the Bahamas, my tattered Bahamian pennant looked worse for wear. And so too did my catamaran minus both its rudders. Both as if some hungry sea creature had taken two bites out top and bottom from my pennant, both had lost their weft and warp. Mystique had lost her two rudders during our 2018 voyage.
Maybe Mystique should have flown the Skull and Crossbones. Could it have fared better? Who knows!
My blogs related to my sailing solo to the Bahamas in 2017 or earlier:
My blogs related to sailing the Bahamas in 2018 with Lainie: