I’m not a big fan of cruises. My wife once suggested we do a Disney cruise, an idea which I figure would manage to combine two vacation nightmares into one.

 

If that’s your thing, have at it. But I always think of Dave Barry describing a cruise that lasted five days and 153 meals, with stops at places like Cozumel, where you can experience authentic Mexican culture in souvenir stores and restaurants where everyone speaks English and accepts dollars.


See Also


After I wrote about hiking Cumberland Island, though, I got an email from Fleming Island’s Fred Braman about some of his adventures, including a very different kind of cruise.

Braman, 70, is retired after careers in the Navy and teaching high school math. He’s been sailing much of his life. He recalled sailing to Cumberland dozens of times since the 1980s, once meeting Carol Ruckdeschel (one of the island characters I wrote about) and trading a bottle of Jack Daniel’s for some wild pork she had shot.

He mentioned his recent Bahamas cruise, one that I’m sure some people will consider their version of a nightmare vacation.

Braman and two college roommates, now also in their 70s, spent a couple of weeks in February hopping from island to island. Not on big ships with buffets and bands.

On mail boats. With crates of chicken, goats, water, beer, groceries, lumber, fuel, canned goods, fellow passengers and, yes, even some mail.

The mail boats, he explains, are what connect a country with hundreds of islands. Thirty of the islands are inhabited, give or take a few depending on your definition of inhabited. Through the years, on numerous sailing trips to the Bahamas, Braman has been to 22. He writes about some of his adventures for Southwinds Magazine and in a self-published 2013 book, “Too Old Not To Go!”

The idea of traveling via mail boats came to him back in 2012, when he took the kind of trip he had been dreaming about much of his life: a three-month, 2,000-mile solo journey on his sailboat, Rhombus.

His previous boat, Monilou (named after daughters Monica and Louise), sank at the marina during Hurricane Frances in 2004. He was looking at a Catalina 30 as a replacement when he asked what it was named.

When he was told “Rhombus” – which, if you’re like me and have forgotten much of what you learned in high school, is a parallelogram with equal sides – the geometry teacher took it as a sign.

“I’ll take her!” he recalls saying.

When he took her to the Bahamas, he made a point to stop at small, remote islands. But no matter how small or remote, it seemed that while he was there a mail boat appeared.

As he watched them unload, he hatched the idea for the Mail Boat Cruise.

Louise, his wife of 49 years, wanted no part of this.

“She thinks I’m nuts,” he said, adding with a laugh. “She asks when I’m going to grow up. I’m 70 now. So if it hasn’t happened yet …”

He found two other willing Peter Pans in Dave Blake of Phoenix and Phil Lugger of Detroit, his buddies at General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) in Flint, Mich.

They flew to Nassau and headed to Potter’s Cay, a small island under the bridge that connects Nassau and Paradise Island (home of the resort Atlantis).

He describes the spot as “mail boat heaven,” a chaotic mix of activity on mail boats, some as large as car ferries, some as small as tugboats.

“Potter’s Cay is pure bedlam,” he said. “It’s so fun just to watch.”

They spent a couple of days scoping out mail boats. The first challenge was simply figuring out schedules. In an age when we’re used to using technology for everything, the best way to know when a mail boat is departing is to go down to the dock and talk to the crew. And even then it’s often just an estimate.

They eventually settled on the Captain Moxley, a small boat that was supposed to leave on a Monday afternoon. When they got to the boat, they found out the captain had decided to wait until Tuesday.

“With mail boat travel, you have to be flexible,” Braman said.

They switched plans and boarded the Sea Wind for an overnight trip to Long Island. His two friends got seasick on the way. But after 19 hours, they arrived at the rural island with a convenience store or two, found a mom-and-pop hotel on the beach and had a great time. For a week.

Leaving Long Island, they discovered, was a lot harder than getting there.

Their mail boat was canceled. They were sitting in the island’s only bar when they met Freddie, who said he had an airplane. The next day they hopped in a five-seat plane — they dubbed it “Freddy Airlines” — for a smooth, 30-minute flight to San Salvador, pop. 940, believed to be the site of Columbus’ first New World landfall in 1492. And so the journey went.

This wasn’t your grandfather’s cruise. Unless your grandfather is Fred Braman.

In what feels a bit like a nautical, senior version of a college road trip across Europe, they traveled to eight islands on five mail boats, the cost ranging from $40 to $80 for a one-way ticket, $10 more for a bunk bed on the overnighters.

The destinations ranged from fishing village to rural to more upscale.

In New Providence, they rented individual yellow submarines, vessels that resemble underwater jet skis. When Braman released some fish food, some of it floated into the bubble around his head. About a half dozen small yellowfin swam into the bubble, cutting him as they went after the food – which led to an interesting reaction when he surfaced and the next group of submariners saw his bloody face.

The common denominators throughout the trip: beautiful water and kind people.

“I’ve been all over the world, to more than 60 countries,” Braman said. “The Bahamians are the most friendly people you’ll find anywhere.”

This, he says, is part of the beauty of mail boat travel: You get to see the real Bahamas.

“People take cruise ships to Freeport and Nassau and think they have visited the Bahamas,” he said. “They haven’t.”

He knows traveling by mail boat isn’t for everyone, that it requires embracing uncertainty. He also knows he wants to do it again.

He’s already planning Mail Boat II.